This Day In Writing History
On December 10th, 1830, the legendary American poet Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was treasurer of Amherst College; his father, Samuel Dickinson, co-founded the school.
Edward was also a state legislator who served numerous terms of office over a 40-year period. Emily described him as warm and loving, while her mother was cold and distant. Emily had an older brother, Austin, and a younger sister, Lavinia.
As a child, Emily Dickinson was well-behaved and displayed a gift for music, showing a particular talent for playing the piano. From the age of nine, she studied botany and tended the family garden with her sister.
Emily collected pressed plants, and throughout her lifetime, assembled them in a 66-page leather bound herbarium, which would contain almost 425 specimens. At the age of ten, Emily, along with her sister, enrolled at Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that had begun accepting female students two years earlier.
Edward Dickinson bought a new home and moved the family in. Whenever their parents were absent, Emily and her brother Austin would pretend to be Lord and Lady Dickinson, the owners and rulers of the home.
Since she was so distant from her mother, Emily turned to her brother for comfort whenever something befell her. "He was an awful mother," she quipped, "but I liked him better than none." From a young age, Emily was troubled by the "deepening menace" of death, especially when she lost people close to her.
When she was 14, the death of her second cousin and close friend Sophia Holland from typhus traumatized her. A year later, a religious revival took place in Amherst, with many townspeople becoming born again Christians.
Emily too became one of the faithful, but it didn't last. She ended her church-going a few years later, after which, she wrote a poem opining that "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church - / I keep it, staying at Home."
After graduating from Amherst Academy in 1847, Emily Dickinson enrolled at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which would later become Mount Holyoke College. She remained at the Seminary for only ten months.
Some say that she had become ill and was homesick, others have suggested that she disliked the teachers and rebelled against the school's evangelical fervor. Whatever the reason, her brother Austin brought her home, where she took over the household, keeping house and cooking for the family.
She enjoyed attending activities and events in town; at this time, a young attorney named Benjamin Franklin Newton became a Dickinson family friend and a mentor to the 18-year-old Emily. He introduced her to the works of William Wordsworth and gifted her with a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's first poetry collection.
Newton held Emily in high regard and recognized her talent as a poet, but their relationship was most likely platonic. Sadly, he contracted tuberculosis, and as he lay dying of the disease, he wrote to Emily.
He told her that he would like to live long enough to see her become a literary success. He didn't. Emily would say of Newton, "When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me immortality - but venturing too near himself, he never returned."
A few years later, in 1850, Emily was devastated again by the death of a close friend. Leonard Humphrey, her former principal at Amherst Academy, died suddenly of "brain congestion" at a young age. Emily had other friends, including Susan Gilbert, her best girlfriend, who had been a classmate of hers at Amherst.
Emily would write her over three hundred letters, more than she had written to anyone else. Their friendship was tempestuous, as Susan was often aloof and disagreeable, but she also acted as Emily's muse and literary adviser. She would later marry Emily's brother Austin, but the marriage would not be a happy one.
From the mid-1850s, Emily's mother became bedridden, suffering from various chronic illnesses. She demanded that one of her daughters remain with her, so Emily assumed the responsibility.
The strain of having to care for her cold and distant mother and keep up with the household chores took a huge toll on Emily psychologically. She began to withdraw more and more from the outside world, and became a recluse.
When she wasn't caring for her mother or keeping house, Emily wrote poetry and organized her large collection of manuscripts, rewriting, editing, and making clean copies of her poems. Over a seven-year period, from 1858 to 1865, she assembled 40 volumes containing nearly 800 poems.
When Samuel Bowles, owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican newspaper, became a friend of the Dickinson family, Emily sent him over three dozen letters and nearly fifty poems. Their friendship brought out some of her most intense writing.
Around 1872, Otis Phillips Lord, a judge on the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, became an acquaintance of Emily's, and then, her friend. In Lord, she found a soul mate and kindred spirit who possessed similar literary interests and admired her poetry.
After his wife died in 1877, scholars believe that Lord's relationship with Emily became a late-life romance, but this can't be proven because their letters were destroyed.
More deaths of loved ones would traumatize Emily. In 1874, her father died of a stroke. Nearly a year to the day in 1875, her mother suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. The increased demands her care required took a tremendous toll on Emily's mental and physical health.
She continued to write, but stopped organizing her manuscripts. Her mother would live for seven more years. She died in 1882. The following year, Emily lost her favorite nephew, Gilbert, her brother's youngest child, when the boy died of typhus. Judge Lord fell ill and died in March of 1884.
Devastated and drained both mentally and physically, her health began to deteriorate. Emily Dickinson died on May 15th, 1886, at the age of 55. Her doctor listed the cause of death as Bright's disease, now known as chronic nephritis or inflammation of the kidneys.
After Emily's death, her sister Lavinia kept the promise she made and destroyed all of Emily's letters. However, Emily did not request that her poems be destroyed. Although less than a dozen of them had been published during Emily's lifetime, Lavinia was shocked to find that her sister had written nearly 1,800 poems.
When Emily's poems were published anonymously by Samuel Bowles in the Springfield Republican, he had edited them considerably, and she complained that the edits changed the meanings of her poems.
Emily wrote poetry in an experimental style, with unconventional capitalization and punctuation, extensive use of dashes, slant rhyme schemes, and idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery.
Evidently, Bowles thought her style was too unconventional for Victorian readers. Her work would not be published in its original, unaltered format until 1955, when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Today, Emily Dickinson is rightfully considered one of the greatest American poets of all time, and she remains a major influence on American poetical voice.
Quote Of The Day
"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry." - Emily Dickinson
Today's video features a reading of Emily Dickinson's classic poem, Because I Could Not Stop For Death. Enjoy!
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Monday, December 9, 2013
Jeannette de Beauvoir
Holiday Hopes is now up as an e-book on Amazon and available in print from Lulu.com.
Friday, December 6, 2013
This Day In Writing History
On December 6th, 1933, a federal judge ruled that Ulysses, the classic epic novel by legendary Irish writer James Joyce, was not legally obscene. At the time, the novel had been banned in the United States for over ten years.
Beginning in 1918, Ulysses was published in serialized form in the American literary magazine The Little Review.
In 1920, when the magazine published the novel's thirteenth episode, Nausicaä, a moralist group called The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) objected to the content and determined to keep Ulysses from being published in America in any format.
The NYSSV was founded in 1873 by the notorious Anthony Comstock and his supporters in the Young Men's Christian Association. (Yes, that YMCA.) Comstock was a United States Postal Inspector.
The same year that he founded the NYSSV, he persuaded Congress to pass the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to send obscene materials through the mail.
The passage of the Comstock Act resulted in the enacting of "Comstock Laws" at the state and federal level. The last of these laws wouldn't be struck down by the Supreme Court until 1965.
The Comstock Act was a nightmare. His definition of obscenity was so vague that he even used the law and his power as a Postal Inspector to block the shipment of certain medical textbooks to medical students.
Comstock had copies of George Bernard Shaw's classic play Mrs. Warren's Profession blocked, calling Shaw "an Irish smut dealer." The furious playwright remarked:
"Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all."
Although Comstock enjoyed a public reputation as a devout Christian guardian of morality, privately, he was corrupt - and notoriously so.
As a moralist, he destroyed the lives of many innocent people. He proudly admitted to being responsible for 4,000 arrests and 15 suicides.
In his later years, his health began deteriorating, the result of a severe blow to the head from an unknown attacker. Before he died in 1915, Comstock attracted the attention of an admirer.
The young man was a law student named J. Edgar Hoover. He agreed with Comstock's beliefs and was interested in his methods of investigation, prosecution, and conviction.
Unfortunately, Comstock's NYSSV was successful in its prosecution of The Little Review for publishing the offending episode from Ulysses.
At the first trial in 1921, the literary magazine was ruled legally obscene, and as a result, Ulysses was banned in the United States.
The ruling was a product of its time. The Nausicaä episode contained a scene which must have been shocking to 1920s sensibilities. Leopold Bloom, one of the main characters, meets a girl named Gerty MacDowell at the beach.
Gertie has come to watch a fireworks display. She soon notices Bloom staring at her. Her passion stirred by both him and the fireworks, Gerty deliberately exposes herself to Bloom. He becomes aroused and starts to masturbate, which arouses her in return.
They both reach orgasm as a Roman candle explodes overhead, gushing out "a stream of rain gold hair threads." Afterward, Gerty leaves and reveals herself to be lame, leaving Bloom to contemplate on the beach.
With Joyce's playful punning, the erotic scene becomes a parody of the Catholic Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament ceremony, with Bloom acting out his own version of an Adoration.
In this parody, Gerty's body serves as the body of Christ. The revelation of her lameness is Joyce's biting metaphor for the Catholic Church. At the time, such satirical jabs at the Church or religion in general could easily spark a fire of outrage.
The trial that resulted in Ulysses being banned in the United States drew a huge amount of publicity. As a result, pirated editions of the novel were published.
These illegal editions were sold on the black market or under the counter in bookshops. They made the novel a bestseller, but Joyce didn't earn a penny from the sale of them.
In 1933, after twelve years of frustration, Joyce's official U.S. publisher, Random House, decided to set up a test case. They imported an uncensored French edition of Ulysses and had Customs confiscate a copy after the ship was unloaded.
That year, the case of United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses came to trial. On December 6th, 1933, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was not legally obscene.
A furious NYSSV appealed the decision. The case reached the United States Second Court of Appeal, which affirmed it on August 7th, 1934.
Ulysses was finally published uncensored in the United States. Most of these editions - including the one that I have - feature the text of the Woolsey ruling as part of the forward.
Woolsey had ruled that Ulysses was not pornographic because it contained no "dirt for dirt's sake." Also, the novel was so hard to understand that people would be unlikely to read it for the purpose of titillation.
British literary scholar and translator Stuart Gilbert wrote that Woolsey's ruling was "epoch-making." He was right. The ruling made it much harder for would-be censors to get written works declared legally obscene.
Also, the ruling made it practically impossible for an entire novel to be declared legally obscene because of a few allegedly offending lines or passages contained within it.
Quote Of The Day
“[A writer is] a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” - James Joyce
Today's video features a documentary on the censorship trials of James Joyce's Ulysses. Enjoy!
Thursday, December 5, 2013
This Day In Writing History
On December 5th, 1941, Sea of Cortez, the classic non-fiction book by the legendary American writer John Steinbeck, was published. Subtitled A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, the book was co-written by the noted marine biologist, ecologist, and philosopher Ed Ricketts.
The two men had first met in 1930. Steinbeck had always been interested in marine biology; Ricketts, a professional biologist, had a small laboratory in Cannery Row where he prepared specimens of intertidal plant life for sale to universities and other laboratories.
Steinbeck spent many hours with Ricketts in the lab and they greatly enjoyed each other's company. In 1939, Ricketts published Between Pacific Tides, a definitive textbook study of intertidal fauna.
The following year, Steinbeck was in desperate need of escape and relaxation following the controversy surrounding his classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) - he had been publicly vilified as a communist propagandist, though he had taken great pains to avoid being labeled as such.
Meanwhile, Ricketts had been planning another specimen collecting trip along the Pacific coast. The two friends decided to go together. Steinbeck hired a sardine fishing boat called the Western Flyer take them down the Pacific coast and into Mexico.
To offset the cost of the trip, Steinbeck and Ricketts decided to write a book together about the expedition. They both kept detailed journals, which they would rework into a book manuscript.
After sailing leisurely and fishing down the Pacific coast, they refueled in San Diego and moved on to Cabo San Lucas. There, they were greeted by Mexican officials and began collecting specimens.
They and the crew of the Western Flyer engaged in frequent battles with the boat's outboard motor, which they nicknamed the Hansen Sea-Cow. Their problems with the motor served as a running gag in the book:
Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing.... [it] loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed... when attacked with a screwdriver [it] fell apart in simulated death... It loved no one, trusted no one, it had no friends.
At La Paz, out of beer and warmly received by the natives, they hit the town and enjoyed the hospitality. They also spent three days collecting specimens. Steinbeck would base his classic novella The Pearl (1947) on his time in La Paz.
On their way to San José Island, Steinbeck, Ricketts, and their crew ended up rowing their boat when the cantankerous Hansen Sea-Cow refused to start. From there, they moved on to Puerto Escondido.
In Puerto Escondido, Steinbeck and Ricketts found their most abundant fauna collecting ground. They also hung out with some new Mexican friends, eating, drinking, and listening to dirty jokes in Spanish.
The six-week expedition would take the men to many other locations around the Baja California peninsula. They would collect over 500 species of intertidal plant life and discover 50 new species of marine life, including three new species of sea anemone.
Dr. Oscar Calgren of the Lund University's Department of Zoology in Sweden named these species Palythoa rickettsii, Isometridium rickettsi, and Phialoba steinbecki after the two men who discovered them.
When Steinbeck and Ricketts got back to Monterey, they began work on their book. After the manuscript was completed and submitted, Steinbeck's editor wanted the title page to state that Steinbeck wrote the book, which included appendices by Ricketts. A furious Steinbeck shot back, "I not only disapprove of your plan — I forbid it!"
He enjoyed writing Sea of Cortez with Ricketts. He liked the challenge of applying his skills as a novelist to writing scientific non-fiction and making it entertaining. The book is part scientific text, part travelogue, and part philosophy.
Steinbeck believed that Sea of Cortez was the best work he'd done, but expected the critics to savage it. He also expected it to be of limited commercial appeal. The reviews were mixed, but mostly favorable.
The book was indeed a commercial failure, but not because of limited appeal. It was published on December 5th, 1941 - two days before the Pearl Harbor attack took place, bringing the United States into World War II. Suddenly, marine biology was the last thing on the public's mind.
The revenues from Sea of Cortez were not nearly enough to allow Ed Ricketts to pay John Steinbeck back for financing their expedition. Steinbeck didn't care. He remained close friends with Ricketts, on whom he based the character of Doc, the good-natured, booze guzzling marine biologist who appears in Cannery Row (1945) and other novels.
In 1948, Ricketts was killed when a train struck his car. Steinbeck was devastated. Three years later, their book was reissued as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The new edition included a biographical preface titled About Ed Ricketts. This time, the book received the commercial success it was due.
Quote Of The Day
"When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate." - John Steinbeck
Today's video features a presentation about a team of researchers and biologist who retraced the expedition that John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts took, which formed the basis of their book, Sea of Cortez. Enjoy!
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
This Day In Writing History
On December 4th, 1916, the legendary English writer W. Somerset Maugham departed on a ship to Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. During the voyage, he became friendly with his fellow passengers.
Two of them, a missionary and a prostitute, would inspire him to write one of his most famous short stories, Rain, which would appear in his 1923 short story collection, The Trembling Of A Leaf.
Rain, (originally titled Miss Thompson) told the story of the downfall of a devoutly religious, severely repressed missionary who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of a prostitute.
After their boat docks in Samoa, fiery Scottish missionary Reverend Alfred Davidson and his wife find themselves trapped by the island's heavy seasonal rains. They lodge at a seedy rooming house and general store.
To the Davidsons' dismay, the occupant of the room below them turns out to be Sadie Thompson, a fast young American woman who was a passenger on their ship. The Davidsons can hear the sounds of Sadie's phonograph, her laughter, and the sailors that she entertains.
When Reverend Davidson learns that Sadie is a prostitute, he becomes determined to save her soul and make a good Christian woman out of her. But Sadie is a tough cookie and wants none of that.
As Davidson becomes Sadie's unwanted "avenging angel" and tries to save her from sin, his repressed passions threaten to explode. He ends up killing himself, and the story ends with the disturbing implication that he raped Sadie.
In 1923, Rain was adapted as a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph. It opened first in London, then in New York the following season, becoming one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1920s.
In 1927, silent movie megastar Gloria Swanson bought the film rights to Rain, determined to play Sadie Thompson. This brought her into conflict with Hollywood Production Code Administration head censor Will Hays, because he forbade any negative depictions of religion.
Swanson got around Hays by making changes to her original cut of Rain. The missionary Reverend Davidson became a religious layperson, Mr. Atkinson. All she had to do was change the character's name and description on the silent film's title cards.
The name of the picture was changed to Sadie Thompson to avoid any references to Rain. This was done to appease studio bosses who had pledged not to adapt "salacious" books and plays for the screen.
The silent film's title cards had been changed, but Will Hays was so concerned about eliminating all references to Rain that he hired lip readers to screen Sadie Thompson.
They must have been asleep at the switch, because they missed seeing Gloria Swanson mouth the line "You'd yank wings off butterflies and claim you were saving their soul, you psalm-singing son of a bitch!"
Sadie Thompson became a huge hit, earning record-setting revenues at the box office, thanks to Swanson's performance in the lead role, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Lionel Barrymore delivered a typically brilliant performance as Atkinson. When the film was restored in 1984, the original title cards were used, and Atkinson became Reverend Alfred Davidson again.
Due to the degradation of the original film elements, the last reel was lost forever, so the restorers had to use stills and new title cards to prepare an ending for the movie.
Quote Of The Day
"What mean and cruel things men can do for the love of God." - W. Somerset Maugham
Today's video features a complete reading of W. Somerset Maugham's classic short story Rain. Enjoy!
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
This Day In Writing History
On December 3rd, 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire, the classic and controversial play by the legendary American playwright Tennesee Williams, opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Williams had written the steamy play while living in an apartment in New Orleans, rewriting the script numerous times and changing the title as well. Early titles of the play included The Moth, The Poker Night, and Blanche's Chair on the Moon.
A Streetcar Named Desire told the story of Blanche DuBois, a fading but still attractive Southern belle who comes to stay with her sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowlaski, while taking time off from her teaching job after suffering from a nervous disorder.
Actually, she was fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. On the surface, Blanche may seem like a virtuous, cultured Southern belle, but that's just an act to conceal her alcoholism, mental illness, and delusions of grandeur.
Blanche is also a nymphomaniac, driven to sexual addiction after catching her husband, Allan Gray, having an affair with another man, which resulted in the end of their marriage and Allan's suicide.
Stella, who knows that her sister is a nymphomaniac, is hesitant to let Blanche stay with her, for fear that she'll seduce her husband. Stanley is a brutish, domineering slug who abuses Stella both emotionally and physically, but his beastly nature and animal sexuality are what attracted her to him.
The arrival of Blanche predictably upsets the unhealthy co-dependent relationship of Stella and Stanley. When Blanche sets her sights on Stanley's friend Mitch, Stanley determines to unmask her Southern belle facade. He learns about her past and confronts her with it.
Finally pushed to the breaking point, Stanley rapes Blanche in a fit of rage, which is alluded to rather than shown explicitly. The attack drives Blanche to a nervous breakdown, and she ends up being committed to a mental institution.
When the kindly doctor takes her away, Blanche utters her famous line, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
The original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire starred Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, Karl Malden as Mitch, and a 21-year-old newcomer named Marlon Brando as Stanley. The play caused a sensation with its sexual themes and violence.
The play also won Tennessee Williams a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Four years after it opened, a feature film adaptation was released. Directed by Elia Kazan, the highly acclaimed movie featured Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden reprising their Broadway roles, and Vivien Leigh as Blanche.
Due to the stifling restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code, which would remain in effect until the ratings system was adopted in 1968, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire omits, changes, or waters down elements in the play deemed too objectionable for the screen.
By making these sometimes drastic changes, the film could get the PCA (Production Code Administration) Seal of Approval it needed. At least, that's what director Elia Kazan thought he had done. But then the film ran afoul of the notorious Legion of Decency.
During the Production Code era, the Catholic Legion of Decency acted as an unofficial film censorship board. They rated films and expected Catholics to abide by their ratings. If they rated a film Condemned, all Catholics would be forbidden to see the picture under the pain of mortal sin.
Priests were encouraged to loiter in the lobbies of theaters showing condemned films, take down the names of parishioners who failed to heed the Legion's rating, and deny them communion. Priests were also encouraged to organize picket lines at certain films.
In addition to the imposition on Catholics, the Legion also organized national protest rallies to encourage people of all faiths to boycott Condemned films. To avoid a costly boycott, studio bosses would order directors to negotiate cuts with the Legion to get them to drop the Condemned rating.
Despite Elia Kazan's restraint in adapting Tennessee Williams' play, the film was still threatened with a Condemned rating by the Legion of Decency. While Kazan was away making his next movie, Warner Brothers canceled the premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The studio made several minutes of cuts to the film without his knowledge or consent. The Legion of Decency dropped its Condemned rating, but Kazan was livid. He made one final appeal, asking Warner Brothers if they would release both their censored version and his director's cut of the film.
Kazan wanted audiences to decide for themselves which version to see, but the studio refused, as the Legion of Decency mandated that only their approved version of the film could be released or the Condemned rating would be reinstated.
Elia Kazan's director's cut of A Streetcar Named Desire would remain unseen for over forty years, until Warner Brothers finally restored the film in 1993. Several years after Streetcar's original release, Kazan and Tennessee Williams teamed up again.
Their new film, Baby Doll (1956), an adaptation of Williams' classic one-act play, Twenty-seven Wagon Loads of Cotton, would prove to be another challenge to the Hollywood Production Code and the Legion of Decency, with its steamy sensuality and dark humor.
Quote Of The Day
"I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really." - Tennessee Williams
Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for Elia Kazan's 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. Enjoy!