Category Archives: 19th-Century Literature

Repeat After Me… “There’s No Place Like Home”

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“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Everyone, repeat it with me. “There’s no place like home.” I know we’re all feeling a bit of the cabin-fever felt by Jack Nicholson in The Shining (although, you know, hopefully to a significantly lesser extent), but let’s risk sounding like a broken record… we are lucky if we have the ability to stay home! We know money must be tight, but without the ability to put a price tag on our or our loved one’s lives we are extremely fortunate to have this ability. So in our opinion, “There’s no place like home” is possibly a great mantra to repeat to ourselves every morning. And every evening. And every afternoon. You know, just until it sinks in.

This extremely famous quote (mantra), brings us to today’s blog, however. On this day in 1919, 101 years ago, L. Frank Baum passed away. While we don’t mean to celebrate his death, we would like to bring attention to this world-famous author today with a few facts about his life! Keep on reading…

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1. The “L” in L. Frank Baum stands for Lyman, where he was born Lyman Frank Baum on May 15th, 1856 in Chittenango, New York. The seventh born (out of eventually nine kids) always hated his first name and preferred to be called “Frank”.

 

2. Baum was a somewhat sickly child, educated at home (with exception to two very uncomfortable years he spent at a military academy between the ages 10-12). Hi father indulged several of his whims and encouraged his eccentricities. Baum was gifted a small printing press as a child and began making a home journal with his younger brother that he would distribute to family and friends for free. He began a Stamp Collectors journal as a teenager, and eventually another on Hamburg chickens. Another eccentricity… as a young man Baum raised fancy chickens! Who knew?

 

3. I don’t mean to keep going on about these chickens but let’s get back to them for a second – as they were the subject of Baum’s very first published book! At the age of 30, Baum published The Book of the Hamburgs: A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieties of Hamburgs. Okay, I promise to stop harping on about the chickens.

 

4. Baum had a lifelong love affair with the theater, and dreamed of being on the stage. He did have a short career in it, after his father actually built him his own stage in Richburg, New York. As he was touring with one of his creations – The Maid of Arran (a prototypical musical, for all intents and purposes, based on the novel A Princess of Thule by William Black), the theater back home in Richburg burned down, and in it most copies of Baum’s plays.

 

5. In 1882, while touring with The Maid of Arran, Baum married one Maud Gage – the intelligent daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a famous feminist and women’s suffrage activist. Baum would be a proponent of women’s rights for the rest of his life, standing strong alongside his wife.

 

6. As wonderful as it is to hear of a man standing up for women, Baum was not faultless. As tough as this might be to hear, when Baum was living in Abderdeen, South Dakota his emotional response to the death of Sitting Bull prompted him to call for the extermination of all indigenous peoples! After the Wounded Knee Massacre (where the US army killed hundreds of the Lakota tribe, including women and children), Baum reiterated once more, “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” Yikes! Some do argue that Baum was actually attempting to generate sympathy for the native tribes by coming out with such a ludicrous statement, but it sure is shocking either way.

 

7. After having children with his wife Maud, Baum found he had a talent for telling them stories at bedtime. After overhearing one of these stories one night, Baum’s mother-in-law Matilda encouraged him to write one of them down. Baum had a wonderful relationship with Matilda and respected her greatly – if she thought his stories deserved to be published, perhaps she was right! This encouragement would become the impetus for his writing The Wizard of Oz.

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8. The idea for The Wizard of Oz apparently came to Baum very suddenly, and he wrote it all down in pencil. Once he had a working manuscript, he wanted to call it The Emerald City. Unfortunately, his editors did not want to use the name of a jewel in the title (bad luck, apparently – who knew), and as Baum sat in his office he looked over at a file cabinet labeled O – Z. Hence, the land of Oz was created!

 

9. The first release of The Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, sold out in two weeks. It became an instant classic, and received full critical and literary acclaim. Some consider it America’s first true fairy tale! The book remained a bestseller for two years, and Baum went on to write thirteen more Oz books for a bestselling series.

 

10. Baum did not only write a book on raising fancy chickens and the Oz series, oh no! He was quite a prolific writer up until his end, and actually published 50 novels, 80 short stories, hundreds of poems, and at least a dozen plays. He wrote under pseudonyms, he wrote articles for journals. And he was a family man. The all around package! (Except for his views on native peoples.)

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Our 1905 1st edition of The Woggle-Bug Book by Baum, inscribed by him on the copyright page! Check it out here.

Fun fact: The line is NOT “There’s no place like home” in the book! It is actually “I’m so glad to be at home again!” But that doesn’t really have the same ring to it for the opening of this blog so…

Also, Dorothy’s slippers were silver, not red. Bursting all kinds of childhood bubbles over here!

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“There’s no place like home!”

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Not Just Elizabeth

Todays blog celebrates one of the many authors that we know the name of but few facts about. Despite a family wealth in the slave trade she was an abolitionist, she was a major supporter of child labor rights… and the first in her English-descended family to be born in the United Kingdom in over 200 years. Today’s blog honors one Elizabeth Barrett (later Elizabeth Barrett Browning)… poet, lover and worldwide literary influencer. 

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Elizabeth Barrett was born on March 6th, 1806 in Durham, England. As the first Barrett to be born outside of Jamaica since 1655, her birth was the cause for much celebration. Her family’s wealth had come from sugar plantations in the island country, meaning that her family did benefit from slave labour in running their grand plantations. Elizabeth was the eldest of twelve children, all but one of which would live to adulthood. Elizabeth’s childhood was fairly sweet and standard – full of family picnics, home theatricals and pony rides. However, unlike some other children (and definitely little girls) of the time, Elizabeth fixated on books and began writing, even as a four year old child. She was intensely studious, learning the Greek language by the age of ten and writing her own Homeric epic poem by eleven. Since both of her parents encouraged, published and saved her work, Elizabeth Barrett has one of the largest collections of juvenilia of any English-speaking writer.

barrett4A young illness affecting her spine and movement led to Elizabeth being given (and then continuously taking) laudanum, morphine and opium as a child for pain. Being addicted to these somewhat serious drugs and taking them throughout her lifetime is generally acknowledged to both have helped and hindered her in life. Her constant frail health was negatively affected by these chemicals, but they also may have contributed to her originality and imagination when writing her poetry.

Barretts late teens and twenties were fraught with trauma and tragedy. Her mother passed away in 1828, and her grandmother just a few years later. After moving to the Devonshire coast to aid her frail health (by this time she had possibly contracted tuberculosis), Elizabeth endured the loss of two of her brothers. One caught a sickness visiting the family plantations in Jamaica, and the other, her favorite brother, sadly drowned in a sailing accident while visiting her in Torquay. The guilt of this tragedy stayed with Elizabeth for the rest of her life.

barrett5In 1841 Elizabeth’s life seemed to begin to turn itself around. She was struck with a few years of intense creativity, which led to the publication of several of her greatest works. Her 1842 poem “The Cry of the Children” published in a Blackwoods magazine helped bring about child labor law reform. In 1844 she published not one but two volumes of poetry, which were immediate successes. She was suddenly a household name. It was her poetry that inspired one Robert Browning to write to her and tell her of his love for her writing. They met and instantly became ardent devotees of the other. Both Browning and Barrett’s works improved (despite their work already being popular with the public). After meeting Browning, Barrett published her most famous works Aurora Leigh and Sonnets from the Portuguese. The marriage between Browning and Barrett was carried out in secrecy, and once found out Barretts father disinherited her (as he funnily enough did to all his children who married). They made their permanent residence in Italy, where they raised their son, Pen, and befriended many influential writers and artists of the day.

On this what would be her 214th birthday, we honor this timeless writer – one who inspired Edgar Allen Poe and Virginia Woolf alike. And we give you a parting few lines…

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Brothers to All

Quick! Think about the most famous pair of brothers you know of. What names came to mind? I bet for at least 50% (after all, we are all bibliophiles here, are we not?!) of us, the names that popped into our heads are most commonly associated with folk tales, fairy tales… or just “tales”, if some of them are a bit too… grim… for your taste!

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Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm and Wilhelm Carl Grimm were born just a year apart in Hanau – part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time and present day Germany. After Wilhelm was born in 1786, they would have three more surviving siblings (with one older). The family moved in 1791 to the countryside – a move which the two young boys were exceedingly fond of, loving everything about country life. Unfortunately the family was plunged into despair in 1796, when the family Patriarch, Philipp Grimm, died suddenly of pneumonia leaving the large family poverty stricken and struggling to make ends meet. The family was supported by their mother’s father and sister, and their grandfather made quite an influence on the boys’ lives. He constantly reminded them to be industrious and hard working. The boys were able to go away to school as teens, paid for by their aunt, where despite being looked upon as lower class by the rest of the students, they were able to graduate at the top of their classes. The two brothers remained very close throughout their schooling, despite having different temperaments – Jacob being more introverted and Wilhelm more playful and outgoing, though oftentimes ill. 

grimm1The two attended the University of Marburg together, where they tried to study law. I say “tried”, because here the brothers once again met adversity due to their reduced social status. Treated as outcasts, without the benefit of receiving financial aid or stipends as some of the wealthier students received (explain THAT one, if you can), the brothers once again turned to each other for comfort and worked hard in their studies. It was at the University of Marburg that the pair first became interested in medieval German literature and more simplistic, romantic ways of writing that the modern day seemed to have forgotten. This interest in folklore and poetry and traditional “German” culture influenced the brothers for the rest of their lives. They wished to see the unification of the over 200 principalities into a single, unified state, and spent much of their time with their inspiring law professor Friedrich von Savigny and his friends. It was through these romantics that the Grimm brothers were introduced to the literary beliefs of Johann Gottfried Herder – a German philosopher who felt that literature of the area should revert back to simplicity, and focus more on nature, humanity and beauty. The boys credited their devotion to their studies in Germanic literature and culture as a saving grace in a dark time – outcasts amongst their peers. Wilhelm himself wrote, “the ardor with which we studied Old German helped us overcome the spiritual depression of those days.”

grimm2The brothers did not immediately turn to transcribing Germanic folklore for the masses. As they were solely responsible, as the oldest boys (primarily Jacob) of the family, for their sibling and mother’s livelihood (because that’s what they needed… more stress), Jacob accepted a job in Paris as assistant to his once-professor (von Savigny). On his return to Marburg he gave this post up to take a job with the Hessian War Commission. Their circumstances remained dire – as it seemed almost impossible for Jacob to support them all on his own. Food was often scarce and the brothers suffered emotionally. In 1808, Jacob found a more appropriate (to his interests) job as the librarian to the King of Westphalia, and soon after went on to become the librarian in Kassel, where the two boys had attended their gymnasium (high school, for all intents and purposes). Jacob supported his siblings once their mother passed away, and he even paid for Wilhelm to receive medical attention that year to seek treatment for respiratory problems. After Wilhelm’s recovery, he joined his brother as a librarian in Kassel. 

The original title page and frontispiece of the first set of Grimm's folk tales. This frontispiece was illustrated by the brothers' younger brother, Emil.

The original title page and frontispiece of the first set of Grimm’s folk tales. This frontispiece was illustrated by the brothers’ younger brother, Emil.

It was around this time that the men began to collect folk tales from others. Initially they collected them in a haphazard manner – not realizing the great wonder they began to lay their hands on. They used their positions as librarians to accomplish their research, and began to publish in 1812. Their first volume of 86 folk tales, called Kinder- und Hausmärchen, was published when the brothers were merely 26 and 27 years old. They published several books and collections until 1830 – not only on Germanic folklore but of Danish and Irish folk tales, Norse mythology, and began work on a Dictionary. The brothers stayed quite busy and enjoyed their positions – their work becoming so well-known that they received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Marburg (along with their original diplomas), Berlin and Breslau. 

grimm4After being slighted for a job promotion, the brothers eventually moved to Göttingen where they became professors of German studies at the University (Jacob also as head librarian), and continued to write and publish works on Germanic folklore, mythology and country tales for a few years. The brothers moved to Berlin in their later years, working at the University of Berlin and also editing their German Dictionary, which would become one of their most prominent works. 

Because of the brothers Grimm, we have several tales written down today that might not have been, otherwise. To the brothers we can attribute (at least in transcribing) versions of Snow White, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin. One of the best qualities of their writing is that the brothers found a way to make the tales accessible and readable by adults (at first the stories contained their original graphic violence and sexual implications, which were slowly and painstakingly edited in a way to make the stories accessible to children), while retaining their folkloric qualities and symbolism. Though the brothers did not author the stories – but rather listened, read and researched them all until they were able to grow a collection of over 211 tales – they provided arguably the most extensive fount of Germanic folklore to date… and to them we are eternally grateful. 

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“Sometimes the Devil is a Gentleman” – The Life of Percy Shelley

“I curse thee! let a sufferer’s curse…

Clasp thee, his torturer, like remorse;’
Till thine Infinity shall be
A robe of envenomed agony;
And thine Omnipotence a crown of pain,
To cling like burning gold round thy dissolving brain.”
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Ahh, if only we all possessed the ability to curse our enemies in such a romantic tongue. Alas, we do not and we must leave that beautiful power to those who truly deserve it. On this day, we honor poet Percy Shelley – one of the most famed English Romantic poets and author of Prometheus Unbound - from which the above section was unabashedly taken.

Percy Shelley was born on the 4th of August, 1792 in a small village in West Sussex. He was the oldest of 7 children, and seemed to always run a bit wild! He left home to be educated formally at the age of 10, and at 12 enrolled in Eton. Unfortunately Shelley was heavily bullied at Eton College, and while such behavior is never requested it certainly seemed to help build Shelley’s inner imagination up and he began writing at a young age. At 18 he began his studies at University College, Oxford. Shelley excelled academically at the start, but after just a few months was expelled after writing a pamphlet promoting atheism with another student and refusing to confirm or deny his authorship in it (which in and of itself is kind of a confirmation, no?). Shelley’s life was nothing but static. He experienced bouts of grave financial difficulty (his parents being unamused, to say the least, of Shelley’s difficult nature), and had what were considered extremely radical notions for the times. He believed in free love and vegetarianism. For the turn of the 19th century those were novel ideas, to say the least!

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Shelley wrote to support himself after running away at 19 with a 16 year old girl that his parents had expressly forbidden him to see. The couple were happy for only a short period of time, however, as Shelley was quickly bored by Harriet and his conceptions of free love kept him from the marriage bed. Shelley was eventually able to boast a mentorship from one of his political and philosophical idols – William Godwin – where Shelley discovered both his own political radical ideology and Godwin’s daughter, Mary. Mary Godwin was the daughter of a powerful political and intellectual duo, being begot of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary turned Shelley’s world upside down and the two fell deeply in love, risking family disinheritance to be together. The two, along with Mary’s sister Jane, fled their homes and lived as vagabonds, traveling around England and Europe (often by foot) for over three years. By the time they returned, Shelley’s wife Harriet had had enough and had filed for divorce.

shelley4In the summer of 1816, Shelley befriended one of his first powerful and influential authors – Lord Byron. Percy and Mary spent a season with Byron in Switzerland – the summer ended up being one of the most important of Shelley’s life. Byron helped inspire the young radical, and Shelley wrote his romantic poem Hymn to Intellectual Beauty after an afternoon with Byron. It was during this summer, funnily enough, that Byron’s guests and friends were inspired to have a horror write-off. This writing competition of sorts was the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Upon their return to England at the end of the year, it was discovered that Shelley’s wife, Harriet, had committed suicide. As unfortunate as the event was, it incited Shelley and Mary to finally marry. The two settled in a small hamlet in Buckinghamshire, where they befriended poets John Keats and Leigh Hunt – both of which would prove to be invaluable friends to Shelley in his last years. It was in these years that Shelley wrote and published a bulk of his most well-known works, including The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound, the latter of which is widely considered to be his most beloved epic work.

Sadly, Shelley would not live to see his work widely recognized, as he died when his boat capsized in a storm just shy of his 30th birthday. As was the custom, Shelley was buried in the sand on the beach where he washed up for one month before being dug up and burned on a funeral pyre. It is said that his heart refused to burn – and that his friend Leigh Hunt retrieved it from the ashes and gifted it to Mary Shelley – who kept it in a writing case wrapped in silk for the rest of her days. Oh, what a terrifying thought!

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Shelley’s young works showed all the aspects of the talented writer that he was, if only he had been able to live longer and reach his full potential. But as Shelley once said, we must “fear not for the future, weep not for the past.” Well said.

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We’re Still Salty, Casey

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CASEY AT THE BAT
BY: Ernest Lawrence Thayer

A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought if only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted some one on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clinched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

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Do you even truly consider yourself American if you don’t know at least one stanza of this poem by heart? Unlike the mighty and fearless leader of Tavistock Books (and the San Francisco Giants’ #1 Fan) Vic Zoschak, I know relatively zilch about baseball. I know there are two teams, I know there are some innings, and I know the hot dogs are as delicious as they are terrible for you. So yeah, I basically know nothing about baseball. But Casey? Oh, I know all about that self-confident dud.

casey3Ernest Thayer was a Harvard educated author, who began working at the age of 24 as a humor columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. On June 3rd, 1888, the elusive author “Phin” published a poem that would become a backbone of both American poetry and baseball. Thayer did not receive credit for the poem for several months (as he was not a boastful man), and when he finally did he was surprisingly close-lipped about it all. He never revealed whether he based the game or the character of Casey on a real player, though many have put forth possibilities.

Actor William DeWolf Hopper was the first to read the poem aloud onstage – on August 14th, 1888 (Thayer’s birthday, as a matter of fact) at the Wallack Theatre in New York City. Present were the Chicago and New York baseball teams – the White Stockings and the Giants. Many of Hopper’s recitations of the poem can be heard today, as he became the official orator of the poem – and by the end of his life had recited it over 10,000 times. Thayer read it aloud just once, at a Harvard class reunion in 1895, which finally settled any doubts Americans had on the wordsmith and creator of the poem. Despite the fact that many knew of Thayer’s authorship, his lack of comment and humble nature had caused many to doubt it throughout the years!

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Click here to listen to DeWolf Hopper reciting Casey at the Bat

Thayer lived in California for the bulk of his life working at the San Francisco Examiner, eventually moving in 1912 to Santa Barbara where he lived until he passed away at the age of 77.

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Here is one of our many baseball offerings (we mentioned that Vic was a GIANT baseball fan, right? (See what I did there? That man loves the Giants.) Printed just two years prior to Thayer’s poem publication, this 125 page wrappered booklet claims to be the “Complete Hand Book of the National Game of Baseball.” Find out everything Thayer knew about the game here!

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“All for one and one for all” – Happy Birthday to Alexandre Dumas!

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Alexandre Dumas – a bibliophile household name around the world, created some of the most memorable stories of love, adventure, history, revenge and politics in the 19th century. On this, what would be his 217th birthday, we would like to pay homage to this wonderful French author and the adventurous worlds he created for his audiences.

Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24th, 1802 the third child of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a French nobleman of mixed race (his mother having been a slave in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti) and an innkeeper’s daughter. Dumas (Sr., for all intents and purposes) brought his son to France. The young Dumas was given a thorough education and began writing at a young age and publishing articles for magazines and writing stage plays. 

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When he was 27 years old, Alexandre Dumas saw his first play produced, entitled Henry III and His Courts, which met with acclaim from the very start. A scant year later his second play, Christine, met with just as much success – and Dumas turned his head to writing full time. After enjoying the success of writing several hit plays, Dumas began to try his hand at writing novels. His first novel, published as a serial (as novels often were at the time) was based on one of his earlier, popular plays! Dumas didn’t stop with a work on his Le Capitaine Paul, however… oh, no. Dumas proved to be a very versatile writer indeed, as in the first years of his writing he wrote both an 8-volume compilation (with friends) on Celebrated Crime in European history and a book on a fencing master’s take on the Decemberist Revolt in Russia. It was almost as if Dumas was testing out the waters in his writing, trying different kinds on for size - except that this behavior lasted his entire writing career! Dumas wrote in a variety of styles and genres, most all of which met with success.

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Some of his best known and best loved works include The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Muskateers… both of which happen to have been published in the same year. As if we needed more evidence of this accomplished authors’ capabilities, here are some fast facts about Dumas that you may not have known before:

  • Dumas is one of the most read of French authors in history.
  • Dumas actually at one point built a large chateau outside Paris, that he named the Chateau de Monte-Cristo, right upon its final serial publication in 1846. Unfortunately due to Dumas’ constant money troubles (he spent more than he made on women, entertainment and pleasure) he was made to sell the chateau a mere two years later.
  • He once shot down a racist with class, intelligence and total general badass-ery: “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.” Burn baby burn!
  • Dumas wrote over 100,000 pages in all, and more have been found and attributed to him even after his death.
  • As Napolean Bonaparte disapproved of the author, Dumas fled France for Belgium in 1851 to escape him (and his debts… a happy coincidence).
  • He is accounted for having over 40 mistresses, and fathered at least 4 children between them all. (We had to add in some gossipy news, and ask that we are forgiven for our interest in it all!)

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One thing is for sure – Dumas was a man dedicated to two things in life… his writing and pleasure. He lived for the pleasure of writing and the pleasures of life that his popular writing afforded him. On this July 24th, let us all strive to be more like Dumas! Enjoy your day, live to enjoy your day… and have a drink to celebrate this magnificent author’s birthday. Cheers!

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In Honor of Emily

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“Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson is the first poem I remember reading and analyzing as part of a school assignment. 

The first time I read it, I definitely did not “get it”. I honest to goodness remember my initial reaction to my teachers’ analysis of the poem itself. It was the first time I asked myself the question… how do we know that that is what the author wanted us to read into it? How do we know for sure that she meant for the bird to signify the innocence of the emotion of hope? With some authors it is harder than others – as some authors left… well… less of a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow. One of those authors was Emily Dickinson – the recluse who, to this day, inspires many with her words, whilst we know relatively little about her innermost thoughts during her most productive literary period. On today the anniversary of her death, we’d like to give a brief background on this interesting poet and focus not on exactly what her words mean to us, but rather on the lasting legacy she left behind. 

emily3Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10th, 1830. She was the second of three children, with one elder brother named Austin and a younger sister, Lavinia. Her father was not only a lawyer by trade, but a trustee of Amherst College, where his father had been one of the founders of the school. With their background in education, the Dickinson children were given a thorough education for the time, certainly when it came to the two girls. At the age of 10 Emily and her sister began their studies at Amherst Academy, which had begun to allow female students a scant two years before their studies began. Emily remained at the school for seven years, studying math, literature, latin, botany, history, and all manner of respected academia. Upon finishing her studies at the Academy in 1847, Dickinson enrolled in the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College). Although the Seminary was only 10 miles from her home, Dickinson only remained at the school for 10 months before returning home – for reasons many have tried to unearth but none can be sure of. 

emily2Though throughout her late teens Dickinson seemed to enjoy life in Amherst socially, and was certainly already writing poetry (a family friend Benjamin Franklin Newton hinted in letters before his death in this time that he had hoped to live to see her reach the success he knew possible), by her twenties Emily was already feeling a melancholy pull, exacerbated by her emotions when it came to death, and the deaths of those around her. Her mother’s many chronic illnesses kept Emily often at home, and by the 1860s (Dickinson’s 30s) she had already largely pulled out of the public eye. By her 40s, Dickinson rarely left her room, and preferred to speak with visitors through her door rather than face-to-face. Unbeknownst to any, Dickinson worked tirelessly throughout this period on her poetry, and by the end of her life had amassed a collection of roughly 1,800 poems neatly written in hand sewn journals. That being said, less than one dozen of her poems would be published during her lifetime. The first book of her poetry, published four years after her death on May 15th, 1886 by her sister Lavinia, was a resounding success. In less than two years, eleven editions of the first book had been printed, and her words spread across nations. 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -
 
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
 
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
emily5

It is only now, in researching her life and rereading a few of her best-loved poems that I can see the answer to my question of long ago. We don’t know what Emily Dickinson wanted each word to signify. We don’t need to know. It is the way her poetry made and makes the public feel that gave it the popularity it still holds to this day. “Hope”, indeed. 

Today we honor Emily Dickinson and her lasting impact on the world of poetry. 

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