Apr. 2, 2014

Holding On To Benjamin

by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"Holding On To Benjamin" by Mary Oliver, from Dog Songs. © Penguin, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the woman who wrote, "If civilization had been left in female hands, we'd all still be living in grass huts": author and social critic Camille Paglia (books by this author), born in Endicott, New York, in 1947. She is the author of several books, including 1990's Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, the first book of literary criticism to achieve best-seller status. She also writes articles on culture, feminism, politics, and art for mainstream publications. A self-described feminist who is sharply critical of feminism, she wrote: "Let's get rid of Infirmary Feminism, with its bedlam of bellyachers, anorexics, bulimics, depressives, rape victims, and incest survivors. Feminism has become a catch-all vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses."

Her parents immigrated to New York from Italy; her father, Pasquale, was a high school teacher and World War II veteran. Young Camille was argumentative in school; her former Latin teacher said of her in 1992, "She always has been controversial." Once, at camp, she poured too much lime into the latrine and it exploded. She told The New York Observer, "It symbolized everything I would do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness."

It's the birthday of the world's most famous womanizer, Giacomo Casanova (books by this author), born in Venice in 1725. His mother, Zanetta Farussi, was an actress, and his father, Gaetano Giuseppe Casanova, was an actor and dancer. Venice at that time was a kind of Las Vegas of Italy, with its gambling dens and courtesans and whose religious and political leaders valued tourism and turned a blind eye to vice.

Casanova is best known for his romantic liaisons, and his name is synonymous with seduction, but his autobiography — the 12-volume, 3,500-page Histoire de ma vie or Story of my life — is the best record we have of 18th-century society and its customs. He began to toy with the idea of writing his memoir in 1780, and took up the project in earnest in 1789, in part to relieve the boredom he felt in his position as librarian to a Bohemian count. He completed the first draft in 1792, and worked on revisions until his death six years later. He tells his story without repentance, but nevertheless with humor and candor in describing his failures as well as his successes. He wrote in the preface, "My follies are the follies of youth. You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me," and later, "I loved, I was loved, my health was good, I had a great deal of money, and I spent it, I was happy and I confessed it to myself."

It is the birthday of Danish author and poet Hans Christian Andersen (books by this author), born in 1805 in the town of Odense. He went to work at a young age, supporting himself first as a weaver's apprentice, then a tailor's. At 14, he moved to Copenhagen, hoping to become an actor, and began writing when a theater colleague called him a poet. He published his first story, The Ghost at Palnatoke's Grave, in 1822. He eventually went to college, but he was a mediocre student.

He considered himself a novelist and playwright, and he wrote travelogues, beginning with the conventional framework of description and documentary account but building something unique with his inclusion of musings on larger themes like the role of the author and the nature of fiction. But it's for his three collections of fairy tales that he is best known. Since he never mastered writing in the formal Danish style in school, he wrote in the everyday language of the common Danish people, and he refused to talk down to children or shelter them from the dark and scary. Later translators cut out some of the scarier parts and gave the tales happy endings, and so we often think of them as lighthearted and innocent, but that was not really the case. His fairy tales inspired Charles Dickens, who became his friend, and also Oscar Wilde.

His personal life was a succession of unrequited longings for women, including the singer Jenny Lind, and occasionally men. He never married, but was well aware of how beloved he was by the world's children. Not long before his death, he was conferring with the composer of his funeral march, and told him, "Most of the people who walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with little steps."

In Andersen's honor, his birthday was declared International Children's Book Day, a day to promote children's literature and foster a love of reading in the world's youth.

It is the birthday of writer Émile Zola (books by this author), born in Paris in 1840. His father was an Italian engineer, and he died when Émile was seven, leaving the family to get by on a small pension. Émile's mother hoped he would become a lawyer, but he failed the qualifying examination, and so he took a series of clerical jobs. He also wrote literary and art reviews for newspapers.

In his early career, Zola generally followed the Romantic Movement in literature, but he later began a writing style he dubbed naturalism, for which he is best known. He defined naturalism as "nature seen through a temperament" and was inspired by Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1839) to apply scientific principles of observation to the craft of fiction. Between 1871 and 1893, he wrote a 20-novel series called Les Rougon-Macquart about different members of the same fictional family during France's Second Empire. He wrote of this project: "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world." The most famous books from the cycle are The Drunkard (1877), Nana (1880), and Germinal (1885).

He was also involved in the famous Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongfully accused of passing military secrets to Germany and imprisoned on Devil's Island. Evidence later came out that strongly implicated another man, but the evidence was suppressed to protect the original verdict. Zola published an open letter on January 13, 1898, entitled J'Accuse...!, on the front page of Paris daily L'Aurore. In it he accused the French army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. He was convicted of criminal libel on February 7, but fled to England before he could be imprisoned, wearing only the clothes on his back. The following year, the government offered him a pardon, which he accepted, even though doing so implied that he was guilty. He was finally exonerated of all charges in 1906, four years after his accidental death of carbon monoxide poisoning from a stopped-up chimney.

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