Sunday Oct. 16, 2016

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Late October Camping in the Sawtooths

Sunlight climbs the snowpeak
       glowing pale red
Cold sinks into the gorge
       shadows merge.
Building a fire of pine twigs
       at the foot of a cliff,
Drinking hot tea from a tin cup
       in the chill air—
Pull on sweater and roll a smoke.
       a leaf
       beyond fire
Sparkles with nightfall frost.

“Late October Camping in the Sawtooths” by Gary Snyder from Left Out in the Rain. © Shoemaker Hoard, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of American playwright Eugene O’Neill (books by this author), born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor, and O’Neill spent much of his childhood on trains and in hotels, following his father on tours. He went to Princeton, but he was expelled after a year. He got a series of odd jobs, then went off on a gold prospecting expedition in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. After he recovered, he tried out sailing, vaudeville acting, and writing for a small-town newspaper. In 1912, he fell sick again with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium. While he was there, he began to read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg.

When he was released, he began writing furiously, coming out with 11 one-act plays in just a few years. In 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he fell in with a group that would become known as the Provincetown Players, which included writers like Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. The group began producing O’Neill’s plays on a regular basis, and they helped to revolutionize American theater.

In 1920 his play Beyond the Horizon became a popular and critical success on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win two more Pulitzers in the next eight years, for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928). He continued to write until 1944, when he was diagnosed with a crippling neurological disease called cortical cerebellar atrophy. In 1956, his work began to be revived, and his play Long Day’s Journey into Night — published posthumously in 1956 — won the Pulitzer Prize the next year.

After Shakespeare and Shaw, O’Neill is the most widely presented and translated dramatist in the English-speaking world. His were the first real tragedies of the American stage, the first to dispense with formal language in favor of slang, and the first to use special effects like masks and dramatic lighting. He won the Nobel Prize in 1936.

O’Neill wrote to a friend: “I am far from being a pessimist. … On the contrary, in spite of my scars, I am tickled to death at life!”

And he wrote, “Life is for each man a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors.”

It’s the birthday of Irish writer Oscar Wilde (books by this author), born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, in Dublin (1854). He’s the author of the plays Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893), A Woman of No Importance (1893), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895); and he’s one of the most quotable authors in the English language.

His mother was a famous poet, journalist, and Irish nationalist; his father was a noted ear and eye doctor. He went to college at Oxford, where he began affecting an aristocratic English accent and dressing in eccentric suits and velvet knee breeches.

He stayed in England after college and made a name for himself as a brilliant conversationalist in the high society of London. A movement in art and literature called Aestheticism was becoming popular at the time, and Wilde became known as one of its leading spokesmen. The movement’s motto was “Art for art’s sake.” Wilde began lecturing on the importance of art and beauty in people’s everyday lives. He said: “We spend our days looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is art.” And he said, “Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong.”

Wilde went on a sweeping lecture tour in the United States, stopping everywhere from Des Moines to Denver, from St. Paul to Houston. He visited Walt Whitman in Pennsylvania, where they drank elderberry wine and talked about poetry in America and England. He lectured to rich people and to coal miners. He said, “The most graceful thing I ever beheld was a miner in a Colorado silver mine driving a new shaft with a hammer.”

Soon after he returned to London in 1883, he set himself to writing poetry, plays, and essays. But he didn’t become well known as a serious writer until he came out with his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1891, about a beautiful young man who remains young while a portrait of him grows old. Wilde then burst upon the British theater scene with four consecutive comedy hits: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

Today is the birthday of American lexicographer, textbook pioneer, and educational reformer Noah Webster (1758) (books by this author), born in Hartford, Connecticut. His father was a farmer, captain of the town’s militia, and a deacon at the local Congregational church. His parents valued education and Webster’s mother taught all the children spelling, mathematics, and music. He began attending school at six, but the experience was dreadful. His one-room schoolhouse was dilapidated, and he later called the teachers “dregs of humanity.” That experience influenced his later desire to reform childhood education.

After graduating from Yale College, he wandered for a bit, unsure of what to do. He later said, “A liberal arts education disqualifies a man for business.” He taught school for a time, but the pay was low and the conditions horrible, so he quit to read law. There were no law schools in those days, so a student lived with a lawyer, used their books, and “read law” with the lawyer. He quit that too, for a time, and became very depressed. He eventually resumed his studies and passed the bar in 1781.

It was after a failed romance that Webster turned to literary work. An ardent Federalist, he said, “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.” Webster was appalled that American schoolchildren were using British spellers and grammars, so he started to write his own. A Grammatical Institute of the English Language became a three-volume set that included a speller (1783), a grammar (1784) and a reader (1785). Some of Webster’s innovations included changing the re to er in words like “center.” He also tried to change tongue back to its original spelling, which was tung, but that wasn’t popular, so he dropped it. People called the book the “Blue-backed Speller” because of its blue cover. It was so concise and easy that it became the standard for the next 100 years, and by 1890 had sold over 60 million copies. Webster received a half-cent royalty on each copy. The Blue-backed Speller also helped inspire contests that we now know as “spelling bees.”

Webster was concerned by the fact that Americans spoke and used words differently from the English, and that people who lived in different parts of American needed to speak and spell the same way. In 1807, he began compiling An American Dictionary of the English Language, which took him 28 years to complete. It was finally published in 1828. He learned 28 languages, including Sanskrit, Persian, and Gothic, in order to master the etymology of some words. The dictionary contained over 70,000 words. Some people thought his choices were vulgar and too radical, but poet Emily Dickinson adored the dictionary and called it her “companion.” Though he sold only 2,500 copies at first, the dictionary eventually became the standard lexicon for America. After Webster’s death, brothers George and Charles Merriam acquired the rights to the dictionary, which became known as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Noah Webster was responsible for establishing copyright laws and co-founding Amherst College.

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