Monday Jul. 4, 2016

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Preface to Leaves of Grass

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Public Domain.  (buy now)

Today is Independence Day. It marks the day in 1776 when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The document was approved and signed on July 2, and was formally adopted on July 4; John Adams always felt that the Second of July was America’s true birthday, and wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the date “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” He envisioned “Pomp and Parade [...] Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” He reportedly refused to appear at annual Fourth of July celebrations for the rest of his life, in protest. He died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration’s adoption — as did Thomas Jefferson, who had written most of the document.

It was traditional in the British Colonies to celebrate the king’s birthday every summer, with bonfires, parades, and speeches. During the summer of 1776, they held mock funerals for King George instead — with bonfires, parades, and speeches. They also read the Declaration of Independence aloud as soon as it was adopted. Philadelphia held the first formal Independence Day celebration in 1777, with bells and fireworks; in 1778, General George Washington called for double rations of rum for the troops, and in 1781, Massachusetts was the first to name July 4 an official state holiday. Congress declared it a national holiday in 1870.

Jefferson turned down a request to appear at the 50th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C.; it was the last letter he ever wrote, and in it he expressed his hope for the Declaration of Independence:

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be [...] the signal of arousing men to burst the chains [...] and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. [...] All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. [...] For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

It’s the birthday of American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (books by this author), born in Salem, Massachusetts (1804). He explored the complicated Puritan mores of New England in novels like The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Scarlet Letter (1850), featuring Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for “adultery.” When Hawthorne delivered the manuscript, he told the publisher, “Some portions of the book are powerfully written,” but he doubted it would be popular. It was an instant sensation.

Hawthorne’s father was a sea captain who died of yellow fever while in Suriname. As a child, Hawthorne was almost pathologically shy, an affliction that lasted throughout his life. After graduating from Bowdoin College (1825), he wrote: “I do not want to be a doctor and live by men’s diseases, nor a minister to live by their sins, nor a lawyer to live by their quarrels. So, I don’t see that there is anything left for me but to be an author.” He began writing in earnest, adding the “w” to his last name to distance himself from John Hathorne, an ancestor who’d been involved in the Salem Witch Trials. It cost Hawthorne $100 to publish his first novel, Fanshawe (1828), which was loosely based on his experiences at Bowdoin. It was not a good seller, though one critic was kind enough to write: “Purchase it, reader. There is but one volume, and trust me that it is worth placing in your library.” Hawthorne later tried to disavow the book, believing it wasn’t equal to his newer work. He burned the unsold copies and even his wife, Sophia, refused to acknowledge the book’s existence, even when shown a copy. It took Hawthorne almost 25 years to write another novel.

Hawthorne was appointed as a weigher at the Boston Custom House, weighing and gaging salt and coal. He wrote prodigiously, publishing the short stories “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil.” They were collected into a single volume, Twice-Told Tales (1837).

He met Sophia Peabody, whom he called “My Dove,” and promptly joined Brook Farm, a transcendentalist community, even though he didn’t believe in the practice. Hawthorne needed to save money if he wanted to marry Sophia, and he earned it at Brook Farm, shoveling a hill of manure known as “The Gold Mine.” He married Sophia and had three children. He wrote the majority of The Scarlet Letter at the Peter Edgerley House in Salem.

The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass-produced books in America. In the mid-19th century, most books were handmade by bookbinders and sold in small quantities. The Scarlet Letter was one of the first books to be printed mechanically; 2,500 volumes were printed at once and sold out in 10 days. One critic bemoaned the book’s “morbid intensity,” and Christian leaders were aghast at their portrayal in the novel. One reviewer said that the book “perpetrated bad morals,” but novelist Henry James praised the book for its “indefinable purity and lightness of conception.”

After the book’s publication, Hawthorne and his family moved into a red farmhouse near Lenox, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne befriended Herman Melville. They became such good friends that Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books include The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), The Tanglewood Tales (1853), and The Marble Faun (1860). Hawthorne died in 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Among his pallbearers were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bronson Alcott, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

He said: “My theory is that there is less indelicacy in speaking out your highest, deepest, tenderest emotions to the world at large, than to almost any individual. You may be mistaken in the individual; but you cannot be mistaken in thinking that, somewhere among your fellow-creatures, there is a heart that will receive yours into itself.”

It’s the birthday of American dramatist and actor Tracy Letts (books by this author), born in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1965). He made his first foray into the world of theater as an actor; he moved to Chicago when he was 20 years old because there were more opportunities for him there. He also started to write plays. His first play, Killer Joe (1991), was so violent that no one wanted to stage it, so Letts and a few of his actor friends produced it themselves, to mixed reviews. In 2002, after appearing in several of their productions, Letts joined Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

Letts has said that the play he is proudest of is August: Osage County (2007). It’s a black comedy about the death of an Oklahoma family’s patriarch. It premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre and then went to Broadway. Letts based it in part on his maternal grandfather’s suicide and his grandmother’s resultant drug addiction. His father, Dennis — who was an aspiring actor in his own right — played the father on Broadway while he was battling lung cancer in real life. He played the role up until a few weeks before his death. Six weeks after Dennis passed away, Letts was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama and, he said, “it was devastating. It was so exciting of course to win it, again beyond my wildest dreams, but my father, because of his education and his love of the written word, that would have meant so much to him.” The play also won five Tony Awards.

Letts is still acting as well as writing; he won a Tony Award for his 2012 portrayal of George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In 2013, he joined the cast of the TV series Homeland.

It’s the birthday of playwright Neil Simon (books by this author), born Marvin Neil Simon in New York City (1927). He wrote some of America’s most popular plays, including Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965), Chapter Two (1977), and Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983).

In 1946, Simon’s older brother, Danny, who worked in the publicity department at Warner Bros., got him a job in the studio’s mailroom; by 1948, they were working together, writing material for Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. His first big break came in the early 1950s when he got a job on Sid Caesar’s live television program Your Show of Shows, joining a writing staff that included Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks. He had his first hit play in 1961: that was Come Blow Your Horn. The wildly successful Barefoot in the Park followed two years later. In 1966, he had four plays running on Broadway at the same time. And in 1991, he won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Lost in Yonkers (1991).

He often based his plays on stories from his own life. His brother, Danny, newly divorced, moved in with another divorced man, and that became the premise for The Odd Couple (1965), which was later made into a successful movie (1968) and three different sitcoms (1970–75, 1982–83, and 2015–16). In 1973, Neil Simon’s wife of 20 years passed away. He eventually got married again, to actress Marsha Mason, and his play Chapter Two (1977) is about a grief-stricken widower learning to love again. “Everyone thinks they can write a play; you just write down what happened to you,” he once said. “But the art of it is drawing from all the moments of your life.”

On this day in 1855, Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass (books by this author). The first edition consisted of 12 poems, and was published anonymously; Whitman set much of the type himself, and paid for its printing. Over his lifetime, he published eight more editions, adding poems each time; there were 122 new poems in the third edition alone (1860–61), and the final “death-bed edition,” published in 1891, contained almost 400. The first edition received several glowing — and anonymous — reviews in New York newspapers. Most of them were written by Whitman himself. The praise was unstinting: “An American bard at last!” One legitimate mention by popular columnist Fanny Fern called the collection daring and fresh. Emerson felt it was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” This wasn’t a universal opinion, however; many called it filth, and poet John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy into the fire.

The 1855 edition contained a preface, which was left out of subsequent editions.

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