This Day In Writing History
On April 24th, 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the classic novel by the legendary Irish writer Oscar Wilde, was published. Like most novels of the time, it previously appeared in a serialized format. It had been published in Lippincot's Monthly Magazine the previous year.
For its debut in book form, Wilde had tweaked the manuscript, revising some sections and adding new chapters. This was the only novel that Wilde, who was best known as a playwright, ever wrote.
A famous, anonymously published gay erotic novel called Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal (1893) would be credited to Wilde, but it was most likely a collaborative effort written by his friends, with Wilde serving as editor.
Unlike his famous satirical comic plays, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a horror novel and considered one of the all time classics of the genre. But it's really more than a horror novel - it's an intriguing philosophical and satiric study of human nature - specifically, the nature of sin.
The novel opens with sensitive artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of a handsome young man named Dorian Gray. Hallward is awestruck by Dorian's beauty and obviously infatuated with him.
In Dorian, he has found his muse. He believes that the young man's beauty is responsible for boosting his stagnant creative juices to new heights. While Hallward paints his portrait of Dorian, his friend, Lord Henry "Harry" Wotton, observes them and lectures them in his hedonistic philosophy.
To Lord Henry, the only things that matter in life are beauty and the fulfillment of the senses. The shallow, narcissistic Dorian Gray couldn't agree more. Realizing that his good looks will fade with age, Dorian proclaims that he'd sell his soul if only his portrait could age while he remains young and beautiful.
He decides to become Lord Henry's protege and explore the pleasures of the senses. His first stop is the theater, where he becomes smitten with Shakespearean actress Sibyl Vane. Dorian courts Sibyl and proposes marriage. She accepts, deliriously happy at the idea of marrying the handsome young man she refers to as her Prince Charming.
Her protective brother, James, suspicious of Dorian's character, vows to kill him if he harms her. Dorian invites Basil Hallward and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and Juliet. More interested in love than in acting, Sibyl gives a lackluster performance and Dorian dumps her.
He tells her that her only beauty was in her acting, and now that it's gone, he's no longer interested in her. He leaves her heartbroken and returns home to find that his portrait has adopted a subtle sneer and aged a little.
Dorian decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but it's too late - Lord Henry informs him that she committed suicide. He dismisses the tragic act and decides to devote his life to the pleasures of the senses.
Over the next eighteen years, Dorian Gray explores every possible desire on his path of debauchery. He never ages, remaining young and handsome while his portrait becomes an aged, hideously ugly reminder of his sins that torments him.
One night, Basil Hallward pays Dorian a visit to see if the rumors of his decadence are true. He's shocked to find that Dorian hasn't aged. Dorian shows him the hideous portrait.
Blaming the artist for what the portrait and he himself has become, Dorian murders Basil in a fit of rage. Then he blackmails a chemist friend into helping him dispose of the body and takes off to France.
At an opium den in Paris, Dorian crosses paths with Sibyl Vane's vengeful brother James, who tries to shoot him. Dorian talks James into believing that he's too young to be Dorian Gray. After Dorian flees, a woman tells James that the young man was Dorian - a man who never ages.
Dorian fears for his life until James is killed in a hunting accident. Later, Dorian tells Lord Henry of his strange fate and vows to change his ways and become a good man. He begins by not breaking the heart of his latest paramour, Hetty Merton.
Wondering if his portrait has changed, Dorian finds that it has become uglier than ever. He realizes that his actual motivations for becoming a good man were selfishness and curiosity rather than genuine atonement for his sins.
Dorian knows that he can only be absolved by making a full and honest confession to the murder of Basil Hallward. But he fears the repercussions of doing so. Left with no other alternative, Dorian picks up the knife that he killed Basil with, and in a rage, plunges it into the heart of his portrait.
Aroused by the scream heard from within Dorian's locked room, his servants call the police. This is what they find:
When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.
The publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray caused a sensation and a furor in Victorian England. Although Wilde had toned down the homoeroticism prevalent in the original serialized version, it remained in the book. That wasn't the only objection.
One newspaper's literary critic denounced the novel for "its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophizing, its contaminating trail of garish vulgarity."
Oscar Wilde said of his novel, "I wrote this book entirely for my own pleasure... whether it becomes popular or not is a matter of absolute indifference to me."
Five years after it was published, Wilde (the married father of two children) would be publicly outed as a homosexual by the Marquess of Queensberry, the brutal, hateful father of his boyfriend, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas.
Convicted of "gross indecency" - the legal term for homosexual acts that were illegal under British law - Wilde would serve two years in prison for the crime of being gay in Victorian England.
Quote Of The Day
"There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." - Oscar Wilde
Today's video features a complete reading of Oscar Wilde's classic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Enjoy!
Friday, April 24, 2015
Thursday, April 23, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On April 23rd, 1564, the legendary English writer William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. No attendance records survived, but scholars believe that Shakespeare began his formal education at the King's New School in Stratford.
In 1582, at the age of eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior and pregnant with his daughter, Susanna.
Two years later, the couple would have twins - son Hamnet and daughter Juliet. Hamnet would die of unknown causes at the age of eleven, devastating Shakespeare and affecting his writing.
There are few if any historical traces of Shakespeare's life between 1585 (when the twins were born) and 1592, when he appeared on the scene (no pun intended) as an actor and playwright.
As a young actor, Shakespeare belonged to a company of players known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. They would become the leading theatrical troupe in London. In 1603, when James I became king following the death of Queen Elizabeth, he awarded Shakespeare's company a royal patent.
The company changed its name to the King's Men. They had already built their own theater - the Globe - on the banks of the Thames. They later took over the Blackfriars indoor theater.
These theaters were built on the outskirts of London so as to avoid the city's strict censorship laws. Still, Shakespeare found his plays thoroughly scrutinized for subversive political content by the English government.
Shakespeare acted in his own plays as well as in the works of others, but he soon quit acting and devoted himself exclusively to play writing. When he acted in his own plays, he preferred to play kings. He made a tradition of playing the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father in his productions of Hamlet.
Beginning in 1594, Shakespeare's plays were published in quarto editions (magazine sized volumes) and became bestsellers. His first recorded plays were Richard III and the three parts of Henry VI. These plays were part of his histories.
More than just chronicles of historical events, Shakespeare's histories were also morality plays like his other works, depicting kings Richard III, Henry IV, and Henry V as having the same flaws as other men, though on a larger and more tragic scale.
He was also known for his classic comedies and tragedies. His comedies included such masterpieces as A Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Taming of the Shrew.
His tragedies - the plays he was most famous for - included such masterworks as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Julius Caesar.
Shakespeare was also famous as a poet. Of course, the lines in his plays were poetry - literally, as they were written in blank verse - but as a poet, he was famous for his narrative poems and sonnets.
His narrative poems included epic works such as Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. His sonnets were numbered, from 1 to 154. They addressed three different characters, which scholars have labeled The Fair Youth, The Dark Lady, and The Rival Poet.
In his Fair Youth sonnets, Shakespeare addresses the young man in loving and romantic language, which has led some scholars to speculate that the author may have been bisexual.
The Dark Lady sonnets were supposedly addressed to the author's mistress, and the Rival Poet was most likely one of his contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe or George Chapman.
Although Shakespeare's sonnets were first published in 1609 and have been republished ever since, evidence suggests that Shakespeare never intended for them to be published. He intended to share them privately with his friends.
By 1607, Shakespeare wrote few plays. The last known work attributed to him appeared in 1613. He died on April 23rd, 1616 - his 52nd birthday. Although he had achieved fame and fortune during his lifetime, it wouldn't be until over a century after his death that he would be recognized as the greatest dramatist of all time.
Scholarly works on Shakespeare and his writings published in the 18th century by such famous academics as Samuel Johnson and Edmond Malone brought attention to Shakespeare's genius. In the 19th century, Shakespeare was enshrined as England's national poet.
He was championed throughout Europe by legendary writers such as Voltaire, Goethe, Stendhal, and Victor Hugo. As the Eastern world opened itself to the West, Shakespeare became an ambassador of Western culture. To this day, his works remain hugely popular throughout Asia.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, a small minority of scholars started to question if William Shakespeare had actually written the plays that bear his name. Some have speculated that other authors of the time, such as Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe, may have written them.
Marlowe, a great playwright second only to the Bard, had been a secret agent for the English government. A popular theory suggests that he faked his death for reasons of safety, then used an actor named William Shakespeare as a front for his future plays.
A more mundane theory states that Shakespeare's plays were a collaborative effort, written by Shakespeare and the actors in his company. All these theories are just that - theories that currently cannot and may never be proven.
The timeless themes of Shakespeare's plays make them adaptable at time and by any culture. In 1957, the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa released his classic film Throne of Blood - an adaptation of Macbeth set in feudal Japan. A more recent adaptation of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart, sets Shakespeare's classic tragedy in Russia during World War II.
William Shakespeare's writings had a lasting impact on the very language we speak. Scholars say that the evolution of Middle English (1066-1500) into Early Modern English (1500-1800) owes itself mostly to Shakespeare, whose writings added a thousand new words to the English language.
As Hamlet once said, the play's the thing.
Quote Of The Day
"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts..." - William Shakespeare, from his classic play, As You Like It.
Today's video features a complete, rare 1981 performance of Shakespeare's classic play Macbeth, starring Jeremy Brett and Piper Laurie! Enjoy!
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On April 22nd, 1960, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, the classic first poetry collection by the famous American poet Anne Sexton, was published. Throughout her short life, Sexton, a former model, suffered from severe mental illness.
After her second mental breakdown in 1955, she began seeing a therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, who diagnosed her with a condition now known as bipolar disorder. It was Dr. Orne who suggested that Anne Sexton take up writing poetry.
She decided to attend a poetry workshop, but was so nervous about it that she had a friend accompany her to the first session. The workshop was led by John Holmes - the poet, not the porn star.
It unlocked a talent Anne never knew she had. All of a sudden, her poems were being published in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and The Saturday Review.
She later attended Boston University, studying with Robert Lowell, alongside soon-to-be famous poets such as Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck. The Pulitzer Prize winning poet W.D. Snodgrass became Anne's literary mentor.
When Anne's first poetry collection was published in 1960, it established her as one of the finest confessional poets of her generation. Her third poetry collection, Live or Die (1968), won her a Pulitzer Prize. Around this time, she had become a counterculture celebrity.
She would perform live readings accompanied by a jazz-rock group. The ensemble billed itself as "Anne Sexton and Her Kind." The name of her band is also the title of one of her most famous poems, which appeared in her first poetry collection. It was the signature piece of her performances:
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Unfortunately, while Anne's fame and fortunes grew, her mental illness grew worse. She committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning (she locked herself in her garage and started her car with the windows open) at the age of 45.
During her short life, Anne Sexton wrote over a dozen poetry collections and a play. She also co-wrote four children's books with her friend, Maxine Kumin. After her death, her troubled life would become the subject of controversy.
Her former therapist, Dr. Orne, gave audiotapes of his sessions with Anne to biographer Diane Middlebrook, whose book revealed many troubling details, including the fact that Anne had been sexually abused by her mother.
Her mother and some of her relatives vehemently denied that any abuse took place and accused her therapist of planting false memories during their hypnotherapy sessions.
Other relatives, including Anne's daughter Linda - who approved the biography - confirmed that Anne had in fact been abused by her mother. The biography is still hotly debated to this day, as is the issue of whether doctor-patient confidentiality should remain in effect after the patient dies.
Quote Of The Day
"The beautiful feeling after writing a poem is on the whole better even than after sex, and that's saying a lot." - Anne Sexton
Today's video features rare documentary footage of Anne Sexton reading her poems. Enjoy!
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On April 21st, 1894, Arms and the Man, the classic play by the legendary Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, opened at the Playhouse Theatre in London.
Arms and the Man (the title comes from the opening words of Virgil's Aeneid) was set during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War. The play's heroine is a Bulgarian girl, Raina Petkoff. Her fiance is Sergius Saranoff, a war hero whom she idolizes.
One night, Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary soldier in the Serbian army, bursts in through Raina's bedroom window. After threatening her, Bluntschli begs Raina to hide him.
She complies, though she thinks he's a coward - especially when he tells her that he is armed with chocolates instead of bullets. After the battle dies down, Raina and her mother sneak Bluntschli out of the house, disguising him in a housecoat.
The war ends and Sergius returns to Raina - and flirts with her servant girl Louka. Raina finds the man she once idolized to be tiresome and foolhardy. Then, Bluntschli unexpectedly returns to give Raina back the housecoat.
Raina comes to realize that Bluntschli respects her as a woman, where Sergius does not. She tells Bluntschli that she left a picture of herself in a pocket of the housecoat for him, with the inscription "To my chocolate-cream soldier." Unfortunately, Bluntschli never found it.
Later, Bluntschli receives word that his father has died and he has inherited considerable wealth. Louka then tells Sergius that Bluntschli was the man whom Raina protected - and is in love with.
Sergius challenges Bluntschli to a duel, but the men avoid fighting when Sergius and Raina break off their engagement amicably. To Raina's father's horror, Sergius proposes to Louka.
Meanwhile, Bluntschli is now a wealthy businessman. Raina, recognizing the shallowness of her romantic ideals and her ex-fiance's values, tells him that she would rather have her poor chocolate-cream soldier instead.
He convinces her that he's still the same person. The play ends with Raina proclaiming her love for Bluntschli, who then proclaims to everyone that he will marry Raina when he returns in two weeks.
The opening performance of Arms and the Man received a standing ovation - and loud boos from one lone heckler, to whom the playwright quipped, "My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?"
When a group of Bulgarian students complained about Shaw using their country's military history as a vehicle for satirizing the absurdities of war, the playwright made the following apology:
I greatly regret that my play, Arms and the Man, has wounded the susceptibilities of Bulgarian students in Berlin and Vienna. But I ask them to remember that it is the business of the writer of comedy to wound the susceptibilities of his audience. When the Bulgarian students, with my friendly assistance, have developed a sense of humor, there will be no more trouble.
Quote Of The Day
"Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads." - George Bernard Shaw
Today's video a complete performance of George Bernard Shaw's classic play, Arms and the Man, taped live in London. Enjoy!
Monday, April 20, 2015
My review of Allure of Deceit by Susan Froetschel has been published by the Internet Review of Books.
One year ago I lost my job as a medical transcriptionist. Since then, I have ventured forth to make writing a source of income. My article, “Job Loss is a Journey,” is scheduled to appear in the Spring 2015 issue of Dialogue Magazine.
Theresa A. Cancro
I have a haiku up on tinywords, issue 15.1
In addition, two of my haiku appear in Chrysanthemum, issue No. 17, along with German translations, arranged alphabetically by name.
Friday, April 17, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On April 17th, 1981, the original, unexpurgated version of Sister Carrie, the classic, controversial novel by the famous American writer Theodore Dreiser, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Dreiser, then 28 years old, wrote the original manuscript of Sister Carrie in eight months, between 1899 and 1900. The first publisher he approached found his writing "[Not] sufficiently delicate to depict without offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of the heroine."
Fearing the novel would never be published in its original version, Dreiser began work on a major rewrite. With help from his wife and his friend and fellow writer Arthur Henry, he cut 40,000 words and made other changes, including an alternate ending.
When Dreiser approached publisher Doubleday, Page and Company with his new manuscript, junior partner Walter Page loved the novel and accepted it for publication, offering the author a verbal contract. Unfortunately, senior partner Frank Doubleday had a different reaction.
Doubleday found Sister Carrie extremely distasteful and unsuitable for publication, but Page's contract with Dreiser was binding, so he couldn't cancel it. So, he decided to sabotage the novel instead. He refused to promote the book in any way.
Not only that, Doubleday gave it a bland, red cover, with only the names of the novel and the author on it. Less than 500 copies were sold. When Doubleday's wife complained that the novel was too sordid, he withdrew it from circulation completely.
Theodore Dreiser earned only $68.40 from the ill-fated first publication of Sister Carrie. The ordeal drove the writer to a nervous breakdown and turned him off writing for ten years. Ironically, it also ended up saving his life.
In 1912, Dreiser had originally planned to book passage home from England on the Titanic. Unable to afford tickets for the ill-fated luxury ocean liner, he sailed home earlier on a less expensive passenger ship.
Sister Carrie was later republished when Frank Norris, a reader for Doubleday, sent a few copies to reviewers who raved about it. All future editions of the novel would come from the edited version of the manuscript.
Still controversial even in its edited version, the novel told the story of 18-year-old Caroline "Carrie" Meeber, a young girl living an unhappy life in rural Wisconsin. So, Carrie takes a train to Chicago, where she has made arrangements to move in with her older sister Minnie and her brother-in-law, Sven.
On the train, Carrie meets a traveling salesman named Charles Drouet. He is attracted to her and they exchange information. Carrie finds life at her sister's apartment not much happier than it was in Wisconsin. To earn her keep, Carrie takes a job at a shoe factory.
She finds her co-workers (both male and female) vulgar and the working conditions squalid, and the job takes a toll on her health. After getting sick, Carrie loses her job. She is reunited with Charles Drouet, who is still attracted to her.
He takes her to dinner, where he asks her to move in with him, lavishing her with money. Tired of living with her sister and brother-in-law, Carrie agrees to be Drouet's kept woman. Later, Drouet introduces Carrie to George Hurstwood, the manager of his favorite bar.
Hurstwood, an unhappily married man, falls in love with Carrie, and they have an affair. But she returns to Drouet because Hurstwood can't provide for her financially. So, Hurstwood embezzles a large sum of money from the bar and persuades Carrie to run away with him to Canada.
In Montreal, Hurstwood is trapped by both his guilty conscience and a private detective and returns most of the stolen money. He agrees to marry Carrie and the couple move to New York City, where they live under the assumed names George and Carrie Wheeler.
Carrie believes she may have finally found happiness, but then she and George grow apart. After George loses his source of income and gambles away the couple's savings, Carrie, who has been trying to build a career in the theater, leaves him.
She becomes a rich and famous actress, but finds that wealth and fame don't bring her happiness and that nothing will. Sister Carrie would be rightfully considered a classic American novel, and its author would finally be recognized as one of America's greatest novelists.
Dreiser would go on to write more classic novels, including his Trilogy of Desire - The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (1947) - and his masterpiece, An American Tragedy (1925).
For the rest of his life, Theodore Dreiser was haunted by the ordeal he suffered in getting Sister Carrie published. Like his anti-heroine, Dreiser had prostituted himself to survive. He died in 1945 at the age of 74.
Though he wouldn't live to see it, his original manuscript for Sister Carrie would finally be published - over eighty years after the edited version was released. In 1930, during his Nobel Prize Lecture, Sinclair Lewis said this about the novel and its author:
Dreiser's great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman.
Quote Of The Day
"Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes." - Theodore Dreiser
Today's video features a reading from Theodore Dreiser's classic novel Sister Carrie. Enjoy!
Thursday, April 16, 2015
This Day In Writing History
On April 16th, 1962, The Golden Notebook, the classic novel by the Nobel Prize winning English writer Doris Lessing, was published. The novel is rightfully considered a seminal early work of feminist literature.
That wasn't what the author intended, though the book does have feminist themes. The Oxford Companion to English Literature described it as "inner space fiction." A better description would be experimental existentialist fiction.
The Golden Notebook uses a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative to tell the story of Anna Wulf, a middle aged writer and single mother who has come apart - literally and metaphorically. She keeps four notebooks, each one representing a part of her personality.
In her black notebook, Anna records her experiences in Africa, where she helped fight the colonial oppression of black Africans. In her red notebook, she records her idealism, specifically her political idealism, as she first becomes a passionate young communist.
Over time, she changes into a sober realist, disillusioned by the crimes of the Stalin regime and the realization that communism can't create a better world as she had hoped.
Anna's yellow notebook contains her novel, which is a fictionalized version of her life. Her blue notebook is her personal diary, where she records the actual events in her life.
The narrative is comprised of alternating fragments from each of her four notebooks, which reflects her chaotic state of mind. Fearing that she might go insane, Anna tries to weave together the threads of her four notebooks and create one complete Golden Notebook.
In doing so, she embarks on a harrowing journey in search of her true self, confronting her anxieties and the painful truths at the heart of her personal crises.
The Golden Notebook is a classic existentialist novel written in a post-modernist style.
Quote Of The Day
"With a library, you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one - but no one at all - can tell you what to read and when and how." - Doris Lessing
Today's video features Doris Lessing reading from and discussing her work on an episode of CSPAN2's About Books series in 1997. Enjoy!