We rented a room from an English violinist
and shared the kitchen that filled the second floor.
We had until the lessons downstairs were finished
to cook and eat our dinner before
he started his. Married now
and beginning to show, I took the train
to London every day and joined the crowd
perched on folding camp-stools at the Tate.
Returning one evening, I saw my husband
wreathed in steam above the kitchen stove
while a young girl raised her violin
and released a flock of sparrows in the parlor below.
I paused on the front walk, breathless with greed.
Food, music, children—all within reach.
“11 Park Vista” by Sue Ellen Thompson from The Golden Hour. © Autumn House Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known as Leo Tolstoy (1828) (books by this author), the Russian novelist responsible for two of the world’s most enduring novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877).
Tolstoy was born in Tula, about 120 miles south of Moscow. His family was wealthy and his childhood was idyllic: he went swimming and sledding, and indulged his love for reading in his father’s extensive library. He even stitched together an 18-page booklet titled “Grandfather’s Tales,” in which he wrote down some of the more memorable stories his grandfather had told him. Tolstoy’s parents died while he was still young, and he was raised by relatives. At Kazan University (1844), he learned several languages, but failed to finish. One instructor said he was “both unable and unwilling to learn.”
He spent several years writing in a diary, drinking, gambling, racking up huge debts, and visiting brothels until his brother convinced him to join the army. His experiences in the war profoundly affected his spiritual views and sowed the seeds for his later conversion to pacifism. His ideas on nonviolence became strong influences on Mohandas Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Tolstoy already had three acclaimed novels under his belt, Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1856), by the time he married Sophia Andreyevna. She was 18 to his 34, and in the spirit of full disclosure, he presented her with his diaries a week before their marriage. She read, with horror, of his many sexual exploits with serfs, including one that resulted in a son. Nevertheless, she married him.
He vowed that he “would not have any women in our village, except for rare chances, which I would neither seek nor prevent.” Sophia found his estate in disarray: beds without blankets, dinnerware old and cracked, rooms in disrepair. She bore him 13 children, breastfeeding each one at his insistence, even though it caused her unbearable physical pain. She began to keep her own diary. She wrote, “His heart is so icy.”
It took Tolstoy six years to complete War and Peace (1869). Sophia painstakingly rewrote each draft, nine revisions in all. He even made her a special tray so that she could write while sitting up in bed, recovering from puerperal fever. At almost 1,400 pages, it is one of the longest books ever written.
In his diary, he wrote: “I feel that she is depressed, but I’m more depressed still, and I can’t say anything to her — there’s nothing to say. I’m just cold, and I clutch at any work with ardor.”
She wrote: “I am afraid to talk to him or look at him. I am sure he must suddenly have realized just how vile and pathetic I am.”
Sophia began a yearslong ritual of copying out Tolstoy’s diaries so that she could better understand him. She hid hers, but he continually found and read them. He left her after 48 years, escaping with their youngest daughter on a train, after writing a secret will renouncing his worldly possessions. He died a week later at the station master’s home, with Sophia at the door, begging to be let in.
Anna Karenina, which many consider a finer novel than War and Peace, begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Today is the birthday of American singer and songwriter Otis Redding (1941), best known for soulful songs like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “These Arms of Mine,” and “Respect,” which became a signature song for Aretha Franklin.
Redding was born in Dawson, Georgia. He showed musical promise early, singing in the Vineville Baptist Church and learning guitar, drums, and piano. Every Sunday, he earned $6.00 performing gospel songs for radio station WIBB in Macon. In 1958, he took part in Hamp Swain’s hugely popular “The Teenage Party” talent contests at the Roxy and Douglass Theatres in Macon, singing Little Richard’s “Heeby Jeebies.” He won the contest for 15 weeks straight.
It was when he agreed to drive his friend Johnny Jenkins to a recording session at Stax Studios in Memphis that his life changed. Jenkins’s session fell flat, and Redding convinced the producers to let him have a turn. He sang “These Arms of Mine.” Jim Stewart, the studio chief, said: “There was something different about [the ballad]. He really poured his soul into it.” The song was released in 1962 and sold more than 800,000 copies.
Otis Redding recorded six albums during the 1960s. He became so successful that he bought a 300-acre ranch in Georgia and named it “Mr. Pitiful” after one of his ballads. He owned 200 suits and 400 pairs of shoes and when he performed at the Monterey Pop Festival during the Summer of Love (1967), Janis Joplin introduced him by saying, “This is God that’s coming on stage here.”
He wrote one of his most famous songs, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” after listening to the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He added a distinctive whistle at the end. Three days after recording the song, Otis Redding died (1967) when his plane crashed outside Madison, Wisconsin. He was 26 years old. Some 4,500 people came to his funeral. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released after his death and sold over a million copies.
It’s the birthday of American novelist, social critic, and psychotherapist Paul Goodman (books by this author), born in New York City (1911). Goodman’s mother was a traveling salesperson and he was raised mainly by his sisters and aunt. He was bookish, curious, and independent, and freely roamed the streets, museums, parks and libraries of New York City, an experience that profoundly influenced his later writings on public education in the United States.
Goodman lived as a bohemian, writing poetry, plays, and novels, and occasionally teaching, though he was often fired because of his casual views on sex. For a time, he supported his family by taking contract work for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio offices in New York. For five dollars apiece, he wrote plot synopses of French novels.
In the 1950s, along with Frederick Perls, a German Jew, and Perls’s wife, Linda, he co-founded what would become the Gestalt Therapy Institute, which promoted a type of psychotherapy that emphasized personal responsibility and self-regulating adjustments. Gestalt therapy would become hugely popular in the 1970s.
Goodman wrote several well-received novels, like The Grand Piano (1942), and a collection of stories, The Facts of Life (1945), but it wasn’t until his book Growing Up Absurd (1960), that he hit the jackpot. The book, which was rejected by 19 publishers before finding a home, was a combination of disaffected memoir and sociological screed against the dehumanizing forces of public education. The book became a bible for the burgeoning hippie movement and was a best-seller, allowing Goodman to buy a farm and not worry about money.
He spent the rest of his life arguing for reformation to the American public education system. He was in favor of farm schools, the city as a school, apprenticeship, and guided travel. He even wrote a plan in favor of creating hundreds of 25-student schools in New York City, with four teachers each, and drew up a detailed budget showing how much money would be saved. Goodman’s books include Making-Do (1963) and Compulsory Mis-education (1964)
Paul Goodman said: “Humankind is innocent, loving, and creative, you dig? It’s the bureaucracies that create the evil, that make Honor and Community impossible, and it’s the kids who really take it in the groin.”