Today in Literary History —> On this day in 1852 Alice Liddell was born.
Liddell was of course the recipient of and model for the story Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Here’s a photo of Alice taken by Carroll in 1858, when she was six or seven:
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On this date in 1564, William Shakespeare was born in England. He died in 1616. The “master” playwright was eulogized by 19th century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. In one of his famous lectures, Ingersoll said that when he read Shakespeare, “I beheld a new heaven and a new earth.” (The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Interviews, Vol. IV, p. 39.) “All well-educated ministers know that the Bible suffers by a comparison with Shakespeare.” (Vol. VIII, p. 297) “If Shakespeare could be as widely circulated as the Bible . . . nothing would so raise the intellectual standard of mankind. Think of the different influence on men between reading Deuteronomy and ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ . . . The church teaches obedience. The man who reads Shakespeare has his intellectual horizon enlarged.”
No one knows Shakespeare’s personal religious views, although he certainly was not orthodox, and put many different types of sentiments into the mouths of his characters. His philosophy seems most succinctly described in the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from “As You Like It,” which begins: “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players:/ They have their exits and their entrances;. . .” ending with “mere oblivion./ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Below are several of Shakespeare’s most famous irreverencies. D. 1616.
“In religion, what damned error but some sober brow will bless it, and approve it with a text, . . .?”
~ “The Merchant of Venice,” Act III, Sc. II
Charlotte Brontë was born the 21 April 1816 was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood and whose novels have become classics of English literature. She first published her works (including her best known novel, Jane Eyre) under the pen name Currer Bell.
Jane Eyre had immediate commercial success and initially received favourable reviews. G. H. Lewes wrote that it was “an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit,” and declared that it consisted of “suspiria de profundis!” (sighs from the depths). Speculation about the identity and gender of the mysterious Currer Bell heightened with the publication of Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell (Emily) and Agnes Grey by Acton Bell (Anne). Accompanying the speculation was a change in the critical reaction to Brontë’s work, as accusations were made that the writing was “coarse”, a judgement more readily made once it was suspected that Currer Bell was a woman. However, sales of Jane Eyre continued to be strong and may even have increased as a result of the novel developing a reputation as an “improper” book.
“Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”
~ Charlotte Bronte
On this date in 1885, Karen Dinesen, later known under the pen-name Isak Dinesen, was born in Denmark to a well-to-do Unitarian family. She attended the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen, and studied in four European countries. She published several short stories in 1907. She married her cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, in 1914, and lived with him on a coffee plantation in Kenya. After they divorced in 1921 (he famously had given her syphilis, which she recovered from), Dinesen ran the plantation herself until 1931, when she returned to Denmark.
Those years are chronicled in her famous book, Out of Africa (1937), whose accounts of her adventurous struggles captured the public imagination. A film of the same name, directed by Sydney Pollack in 1985, was loosely based on the book. Her other books include Seven Gothic Tales (1934), several collections of short stories, and two other autobiographical works written after she returned many years later to Africa. Anecdotes of Destiny includes “Babette’s Feast,” originally written for a magazine, which also became the basis of a movie. Dinesen wrote in English, then translated her writings back into Danish. D. 1962.
“Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you: that God and the Devil are one, the majesty coeternal, not two uncreated but one uncreated, and the Natives neither confounded the persons nor divided the substance.”
~ Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa (1937)
Today in 1755 Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” was published in London. It was a mammoth undertaking, requiring almost a decade of work and it remained the definitive authority until the Oxford Dictionary was completed nearly two centuries later. It had been deliberately commissioned as pre-existing dictionaries were relatively poor and incomplete. Johnson’s dictionary is a little different from the relatively dry descriptions and meticulously researched etymologies that we are used to today, for example:
Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. It is pronounced coff
Excise: a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid
As it was, Johnson’s dictionary was so large and expensive that it cost more to print than Johnson’s entire remuneration on the project and sold at around 200 copies per year for the next three decades. Although it was hardly without flaw or error, it was hugely influential for more than a century.
Samuel Barclay Beckett (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989) was born, an Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet, who lived in Paris for most of his adult life and wrote in both English and French. He is widely regarded as among the most influential writers of the 20th century.
Beckett’s work offers a bleak, tragicomic outlook on human existence, often coupled with black comedy and gallows humour, and became increasingly minimalist in his later career. He is considered one of the last modernist writers, and one of the key figures in what Martin Esslin called the “Theatre of the Absurd”.
Beckett was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”
On this date in 1840, Emile Zola was born in Paris. The novelist pioneered naturalistic writing, believing ugly problems could not be solved as long as they stayed hidden. As a struggling young writer, Zola supported himself as a clerk. Legend has it he sometimes resorted to trapping birds on his windowsill in order to eat. Zola also moonlighted as a political reporter and critic. He was fired from a publishing house after an early autobiographical novel created notoriety. His breakthrough novel was Therese Raquin (1867). By the time his book L’Assammoir (“The Drunkard,” 1878) appeared, Zola was France’s most famous writer, yet he was barred his entire life from the Academy. His book Germinal (1885), about conditions in a coal mine leading to a strike, was denounced by the rightwing. Nana (1880) examined sexual exploitation.
Zola’s most enduring work is his open letter “J’Accuse,” about the Dreyfus case. He campaigned with Clemenceau to free the the French Jewish army officer falsely accused of spying. Zola was sentenced to imprisonment for writing “J’Accuse” in 1898, escaping to England until he could safely return after Dreyfus’ name had been cleared. Zola, who was baptized Catholic, was a notable critic of the Roman Catholic Church (and vice versa). The Church particularly condemned his books Lourdes, Rome, and Paris (1894-98). The agnostic was an honorary associate of the British Press Association in England. D. 1902.
“When truth is buried underground it grows, it chokes, it gathers such an explosive force that on the day it bursts out, it blows up everything with it.”
“The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.”
~ Emile Zola, “J’Accuse!” L’Aurore, Jan. 13, 1898
“Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley was published on this date in 1818 in London when she was 20. She began work on the book when she was 18. The first edition was published anonymously, her name appeared on the second edition which was published in 1823 in France.
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