Monday, May 30, 2022

May 30: Countee Cullen, American poet and writer


Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was a Black American poet, novelist, children's writer, and playwright, and part of the Harlem Renaissance. Rare for a Black man in his time, he graduated with a master's degree in English from Harvard (after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from NYU). He was briefly married to the daughter of civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois; she filed for divorce when a few months after their wedding, he wrote her a letter confessing his love for men. Ten years later he married another woman and lived with her until his death some six years later. Overshadowed today by his colleague Langston Hughes, Cullen's work nevertheless expresses the experience of Black people in his day; one of his better-known poems, "Heritage," repeats its first line as a refrain: "What is Africa to me?" as he places his imagined homeland against his life as a "Christian" and an American. Also notable is his, "Yet Do I Marvel."


Sunday, May 29, 2022

May 29: G. K. Chesterton, English novelist and lay theologian


G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was an English novelist, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, lay theologian, and critic. Some of his theological works, such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, anticipate the point-of-view and style of C. S. Lewis. He wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, around 200 short stories, 4,000 essays (mostly as newspaper columns), and several plays. He also wrote articles for the 14th edition (1929) of the Encyclopædia Britannica, including the entry on Charles Dickens and part of the entry on Humor. Among his more popular novels are The Napoleon of Notting Hill, in which a randomly selected King of England enacts some inane laws, and a local young man--the eponymous "Napoleon"--exploits them; and The Man Who Was Thursday, a send-up of anarchism in which most of the leading anarchists turn out to be secret policemen meant to defeat anarchism. Most of us today, though, will know him for the Father Brown stories, often adapted for film, radio, TV, and other media.


Saturday, May 28, 2022

May 28: Ian Fleming, British spy novelist


Ian Fleming (1908-1964) was an English author. Like Arthur Conan Doyle and J. M. Barrie, virtually everything he did was forced to live in the shadow of his One Great Character, in this case: Bond, James Bond. (One exception is his children's book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, perhaps because of its "loosely based" 1968 film version, scripted by Roald Dahl and starring Dick Van Dyke when he was still a hot commodity.) Anyway, there were 14 Bond novels (by Fleming) and nine short stories; since Fleming's death, there have been nearly 50 Bond books by other authors, including John Gardner and Sebastian Faulks. Several of them are set in Bond's childhood. The character has long outlived his creator, who was himself a British naval intelligence officer during World War II. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the 27 film appearances of Bond, played by seven actors.


Friday, May 27, 2022

May 27: Tony Hillerman, American detective novelist


Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) was an American author of detective novels and non-fiction works who wrote the "Joe Leaphorn" and "Jim Chee" series (The Blessing Way, etc.) about Navajo Tribal Police. Hillerman was born in a town in Oklahoma that had been an Indian mission, and was comfortable with some of their folkways. Later, he worked as a journalist in New Mexico, and took a master's degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He wrote 18 Leaphorn/Chee novels and four non-series novels, as well as seven non-fiction books. His daughter Anne Hillerman has continued the Leaphorn/Chee series since his death--seven novels, so far.


Thursday, May 26, 2022

May 26: John Wayne, American actor


John Wayne (1907-1979) was an iconic American actor, director, and producer mostly remember for the tough-guy persona he projected in Western and war movies, though he could play vulnerable (The Quiet Man, The Cowboys, The Shootist) and even comedic (McLintock!, loosely based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew). I pretty much despise everything he stood for politically and socially (see his Playboy interview if you don't know why), but I can't help but love virtually every one of his cowboy films (the war movies not so much). He made 179 film and television productions.


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

May 25: Ralph Waldo Emerson, American writer and philosopher


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American writer and perhaps the young country's first original philosopher. He was an essayist, lecturer, abolitionist, and poet, and a leader of the mid-19th century transcendentalist movement. In true American mode, he championed individualism, disseminating his ideology through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States. Starting out as a pastor (like his father), he struck out on his own with the publication of his 1836 essay "Nature," which expressed the philosophy of transcendentalism. He would often lecture on a topic, then revise his notes to publish as essays. Some of the more important of these are "The American Scholar," "Self-Reliance," "The Over-Soul," "Experience," and others. He returned again and again to the ideas of individuality, freedom, the ability of humankind to achieve almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the outside world. He was also a mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau, another transcendentalist.


Tuesday, May 24, 2022

May 24: Joseph Brodsky, Russian-American poet and essayist


Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was a Russian-born American poet and essayist who was "strongly advised" to emigrate by the Soviet authorities. W. H. Auden and other supporters helped him settle in the US in 1972. He taught at Mount Holyoke College, and at various universities such as Yale, Columbia, Cambridge, and Michigan. In 1987, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for works "imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity." And in 1991, he was appointed US Poet Laureate. His works include the forty-page long poem Gorbunov and Gorchakov, about two patients in a mental asylum that serves as a metaphor for the Soviet State; and the collection of literary and autobiographical essays, Less Than One.


Monday, May 23, 2022

May 23: Susan Cooper, English YA author


Susan Cooper (1935 - ) is an English author of Young Adult literature. In the past 15 years or so I've had the pleasure of reading a number of excellent series of YA fantasy literature, and few stand out in my mind like Cooper's The Dark is Rising pentalogy. Like Narnia, it features the adventures of a group of siblings, here Simon, Jane, and Barnabas (Barney) Drew. In the second novel, they meet Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son; on his 11th birthday he undergoes a magical awakening and a rise to power as the last of the Old Ones--not unlike Harry Potter, a "chosen one." Cooper draws upon Arthurian legends, Celtic mythology, Norse mythology, and English folklore for the adventures of these young people, as did Lloyd Alexander in his The Chronicles of Prydain. The five books are Over Sea, Under StoneThe Dark Is Rising (which lent the series its name); GreenwitchThe Grey King; and Silver on the Tree. I may as well mention here the two books by Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, as being of the same ilk. These five (Cooper's, Narnia, Potter, Prydain, and the two Alderley books) would make a terrific summer reading spate. They all give Tolkien a run for his money.


Sunday, May 22, 2022

May 22: Richard Wagner, German composer


Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a German composer mainly known for his operas. Thanks to Bugs Bunny and others, when most people think of opera they think of large women with horned helmets: that's a parody of Wagner. Much of his work centers on German legends and folklore; the complexity of his music is exhibited in his Tristan und Isolde (about ill-fated lovers), sometimes considered the beginning of modern music. His other works include Tannhauser, about a knight and minstrel whose music violates the rules of courtly (Platonic) love; Lohengrin, about another knight, a mysterious one, who arrives in a boat drawn by a swan to save a damsel in distress; Parsifal, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th-century account of that knight's quest for the Holy Grail; and above all his four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), a masterful blending of stories from Norse legendary sagas and the Nibelungenlied ("Song of the Nibelungs," the adventures of one Siegfried). Wagner's last years were turbulent, but his influence can be seen in many of the arts of the 20th century, including philosophy, literature, the visual arts, and theater. Wagner's most important stage works continue to be performed at a festival run by his descendants.


Saturday, May 21, 2022

May 21: Alexander Pope, English poet


Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was an English poet and man of letters of the Augustan period (first half of the 18th century to the 1740s), and one of its "stars." The foremost English poet of the time, and a master of the heroic couplet, he is best known for his satires, like The Rape of the Lock, a mock-epic in which a lock of hair is stolen ("rape" here is an old sense of "snatch, grab, carry off"), and The Dunciad, featuring the goddess "Dulness." He also wrote a long poem, An Essay on Criticism, with such famous lines as "To err is human; to forgive, divine," "A little learning is a dang'rous thing," and "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread"; and he is noted for his translation of Homer. He is the second-most quoted author in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (after Shakespeare), and, like the Bard, many of his lines, like those just mentioned, have crept into common speech, as have "damning with faint praise," "to err is human; to forgive, divine," and many more. His major works number nearly 20, and there are many more besides.