Monday Nov. 16, 2015

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Song to Celia

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
     And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
     And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
     Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
     I would not change for thine.

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
     Not so much honoring thee
As giving it a hope that there
     It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
     And sent’st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
     Not of itself but thee.

“Song to Celia” by Ben Jonson. Public Domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of author Chinua Achebe (1930) (books by this author). He was born in Ogidi, Nigeria; his parents were evangelical Protestants, and he was named “Albert” after Queen Victoria’s husband. When he went to university, he rejected his English name in favor of his more traditional Igbo middle name, “Chinua.” He joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in 1954, and it was at this time that he wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). It’s the story of a powerful Igbo leader who meets his downfall when he refuses to take seriously the intrusion of the missionary church and the British system of government into his community. In the book, Achebe wrote: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” It’s the most widely read book of African literature, and has been translated into 50 languages.

He described himself as a cultural nationalist, but he nevertheless wrote his books in English, and he came under fire for his choice. In his essay “The African Writer and the English Language,” he wrote that colonialism — for all its evils — at least gives diverse communities “a language with which to talk to one another” and therefore he can reach people all across Nigeria, as well as the colonizers themselves.

It’s the birthday of fiction author Andrea Barrett (1954) (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts. She describes her family as “unintellectual,” and when she developed a passion for reading as a child, her father would tell her to “put the book down and go outside, act like a normal person,” as she told The Paris Review. She would raid the Bookmobile on its weekly visits to her neighborhood; the driver let kids read from any shelf they could reach, and she was tall, so she was reading grown-up books at a young age. She attended middle school and high school very sporadically, and didn’t graduate, but she had strong SAT scores and was accepted to Union College anyway; she was part of the second class of female students in what had previously been an all-male college. She earned a degree in Biology, and her novels and stories reflect her interest in science, particularly women in science.

She worked as a secretary in medical labs after college, and after years of struggling to finish her first novel, she showed it to a writer at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and he told her to throw it away. She was so upset that she cried for a day, but then she took his advice and wrote her novel Lucid Stars, which was published in 1988. Her collection of short stories Ship Fever (1996) became a best-seller after winning the National Book Award.

Because so many of Barrett’s books deal with scientists, she constantly has to do research before she writes. She said: “I love research … I describe a [sailor] character who has to go belowdecks, and I think, ‘So what is belowdecks?’ … Then I have to get books about ship building, ship history, immigration history, so I can write a little more ... I love learning that way — lurching from subject area to subject area. When you’re lit by your own purposes, it’s astonishing how easily you can leap into a new field and get to that center of passion.”

In order to finish her novel The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), about a group of British scientists exploring the Arctic, Barrett traveled to the Arctic herself. Andrea Barrett said: “I think science and writing are utterly the same thing. They are completely rooted in passion and desire, if they’re any good at all. You can fall in love with the natural world in the same way you fall in love with a person. There’s that same sense of helplessness, of lacking control over how much of your life you want to devote to it.”

Barrett’s novel Servants of the Map (2003) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her newest novel, Archangel, came out in 2013.

It’s the birthday of playwright and director George S. Kaufman (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh (1889). As a young man, he moved to New York City and got a job as a wholesale ribbon salesman, but his real passion was in writing. He met a famous humor columnist named Franklin Pierce Adams, and at his encouragement, Kaufman began contributing small bits to Adams’ column. Adams helped Kaufman find his first job as a journalist, and before long he was working as a drama critic for The New York Times.

Kaufman’s first attempt at writing for theater came when a producer named George Tyler asked him to polish up a melodrama about a jewel heist called Among Those Present; Tyler told the 28-year-old Kaufman that the plot needed some comic relief, and gave him 12 hours to rewrite it. Kaufman met the deadline, although he revised it several times after that. Now titled Someone in the House, the play opened on Broadway in September of 1918, just as the flu epidemic became so serious that Americans were advised to avoid crowded public places. It was a mediocre play to begin with, and the flu epidemic didn’t help; Kaufman suggested a new advertising slogan: “Avoid crowds, see Someone in the House at the Knickerbocker Theatre!”

Someone in the House was a flop, but it established Kaufman’s reputation as both a playwright and as a collaborator. After another unsuccessful attempt working on a script for Tyler, he met the playwright Marc Connelly, and the two of them co-wrote several hit plays, including Dulcy (1921) and Beggar on Horseback (1924).

By 1929, Kaufman was famous and comfortable, with his services in demand as a director, playwright, and a fixer of problematic scripts. A producer friend of Kaufman’s read a script he liked by an unknown 25-year-old writer named Moss Hart, and told Hart he would consider producing the script if Hart would let George Kaufman smooth out the wrinkles. That play, Once in a Lifetime (1930), was a huge success and the beginning of a productive collaboration between Kaufman and Hart. For that first play, it took the duo six months just to rewrite it; a few years later, they wrote their smash hit You Can’t Take It With You (1936) in just five weeks start to finish. You Can’t Take It With You was the story of the eccentric Sycamore clan — the entire play takes place in the living room of Grandpa’s house, where various family members spend their time doing ballet, feeding the snakes in the aquarium, making candy, playing the xylophone, and making fireworks in the basement with a delivery man who came to deliver ice years ago and never left. The play was a perfect escape from the reality of the Depression, and it ran for more than 800 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize. Kaufman and Hart co-wrote eight plays, including The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939).

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