Thursday Oct. 16, 2014


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer—
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

"Prayer" by Carol Ann Duffy, from Mean Time. © Anvil Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It's the birthday of Eugene O'Neill (books by this author), born in New York City (1888). Eugene was born in a hotel room, and his actor father went back on tour two days after the birth. For much of his childhood, O'Neill accompanied his father. He said: "My early experience with the theater through my father really made me revolt against it. As a boy I saw so much of the old, ranting, artificial, romantic stage stuff that I always had a sort of contempt for the theater." Then in 1907, when O'Neill was 18 years old, he saw the Russian actress Alla Nazimova star in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at the Bijou Theatre in New York. He said: "The experience discovered an entire new world of the drama for me. It gave me my first conception of a modern theater where truth might live." Hedda Gabler ran for 32 performances, and O'Neill went to 10 of them.

He went on to write 50 plays, including Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Iceman Cometh (1939), and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1941).

It's the birthday of lexicographer Noah Webster, born in West Hartford, Connecticut (1758). He liked learning but he hated school — he complained that the teachers in his overcrowded, decrepit one-room schoolhouse were "the dregs of humanity," and didn't teach him about anything except religion. He went to Yale and trained to become a lawyer; but he couldn't find a job in law, and his father refused to lend him money, so he turned to teaching.

He was depressed by the terrible education system, still as bad as it had been when he was a boy. Many one-room schoolhouses had between 50 and 70 students, teachers were underpaid, the buildings themselves were dark and cold, there weren't enough textbooks, and even after America won its independence, the books still came from England.

Webster set out to correct this problem. When he was 25, he wrote a speller called A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, a title suggested by the president of Yale. Most people called it simply "the Blue-Backed Speller." Webster wanted to present a system that was uniquely American, not just for spelling but for education in general. He wrote to a friend: "America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms; and it is not impossible but a person of my youth may have some influence in exciting a spirit of literary industry." He threw himself into the project, writing and rewriting exhaustively. He said of the speller: "I have been indefatigable this winter; I have sacrificed ease, pleasure, and health to the execution of it."

After the Blue-Backed Speller was published, it quickly became the standard textbook in schools throughout America, and went on to sell more than 60 million copies. It taught students spelling and pronunciation, and had a huge impact on standardizing the way American English was spoken.

Webster is considered the first American author who actually made a living from his writing. Before he published his speller, he realized that he needed the protection of copyright, but no copyright laws existed. So he went around from state to state, meeting with prominent individuals and obtaining promises of copyright protection for his book. He had no pretense of trying to help writers in general, just himself. He earned a half-cent royalty from each copy of the speller, and although it didn't make him rich, he earned enough to quit teaching and concentrate on a new project: an American dictionary.

Forty-five years elapsed between the publication of his speller and An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). During that time, he traveled abroad, read countless original sources, and taught himself 26 languages in order to better understand English. The dictionary contained 70,000 entries, thousands of which had never appeared in a dictionary before. He added new American words like skunk, chowder, andsquash. He simplified some spellings, like musick (he dropped the "k,"); and others he made more phonetic, like changing centre to end in "er" instead of "re," or changingplough to plow with a "w." Some of his changes didn't catch on, like changing women towimmen, or tongue to tung.

Webster was an excellent promoter of his own books — he went on promotional tours, wrote press releases for newspapers, donated books to schools, gave lectures, criticized his competition, and constantly sought endorsements from famous Americans.

He said, "The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head."

It's the birthday of the man who said, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." That's Oscar Wilde (books by this author), born in Dublin (1854). When he was 27, he taught in London and then left for a lecture tour of North America. He'd been invited by the producer of Gilbert and Sullivan's new comic opera,Patience, a work that made fun of the Aesthetic Movement. The show had done well in New York City and was due to go on tour, but the producer wasn't sure if people around America would be familiar with the thing that the opera was satirizing. The producer hoped Wilde's lectures would familiarize the nation with the Aesthetic Movement so that they'd all get the jokes in Patience.

He arrived in New York in January 1882, then he went to Pennsylvania, where he drank elderberry wine with Walt Whitman. He lectured to silver miners in Leadville, Colorado, where he saw a sign on a saloon that said, "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best," and he called it "the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across." He made stops in Boston, Topeka, Des Moines, Houston, St. Paul, San Francisco, and dozens of other cities.

He eventually went back to Europe and settled in London, and concentrated on his literary endeavors. He had two children with his wife, Constance Lloyd Wilde. In 1891, he met 22-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas, a poet from Oxford 16 years his junior.

In those few years after meeting Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde had the most productive period of his literary life. His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), was published the year they met. He wrote his best and most popular plays: A Woman of No Importance (1893) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), the first draft of which only took him 21 days to compose.

The first operation with the patient under anesthesia was performed on this day in Boston, 1846. It took place at Massachusetts General Hospital, the ether administered by Dr. William Morton, a dentist, while surgeon Dr. John Warren removed a tumor from a young man's jaw.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®