Category Archives: History

The Disappearance of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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“People where you live, the little prince said, grow five thousand roses in one garden… Yet they don’t find what they’re looking for… And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose.”

prince1So said the Little Prince – an absolutely beloved character in the canon of Western Literature. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote this story, a children’s story on the outside and a very adult study of human nature and morality on the inside. Saint-Exupéry, a French national, had fled Europe at the onset of World War II and wrote much of his tale during his 27 week stay in North America and Canada. Now normally we would do a blog on Saint-Exupéry’s life story and how he came to write such a popular and precious children’s tale, but today we are speaking of a specific day in this author’s life… the day he disappeared from the skies.

Saint-Exupéry was not only a writer, but an aviation enthusiast and a pilot. He began his career as a basic rank soldier in the French army when he was a mere 21 years old, but soon after accepting private flying lessons he was offered a place in the French Air Force. After taking a brief break from flying for an office job in the mid 1920s, Saint-Exupéry was back at it by 1926. Over the next many years, Saint-Exupéry worked as a pilot for Aéropostale, working as a mail courier, navigation specialist, and as the negotiating correspondent for downed fliers taken hostage by native Saharan tribes in the Spanish zone of South Morocco. In 1929 he was transferred to Argentina, where he spent his time surveying new piloting routes and also ran search missions for downed fliers… ironic, as eventually Saint-Exupéry would not only become a downed flier himself, but flying would ultimately lead to his disappearance.

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By 1929 Saint-Exupéry had already been trying his hand at writing, having published a novella in a literary magazine in 1926, and his first book in 1929. His 1931 publication of Vol de nuit (or Night Flight) was the work that established him as a writer, however. An important event in Saint-Exupéry’s life happened during this time, as a matter of fact, and it would prove to be a great inspiration in his future authorship of The Little Prince. On December 30th, 1935, Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic/navigator crashed a small plane in the Libyan desert. They had very little sustenance with them – some grapes, two oranges, a madeleine cookie, a pint of coffee and a pint of white-wine (how very French!) was all they carried with them. Miraculous was the word of the day, however, as the two had somehow survived the crash and were once again able to survive on these meager rations for three full days (hallucinating, but still alive). Finally on the fourth day a local Bedouin on a camel happened to come across the pair and rehydrated them – saving their lives. This airplane crash – and brush with death – would be revisited in The Little Prince almost a decade later. 

prince3Unfortunately, less than that decade later Saint-Exupéry would be fleeing his homeland and arriving in New York City, winning writing prizes and rubbing shoulders with the literary crowd in New York, all the while simultaneously trying to convince the US government (through its higher-ups) to join in on the fight against fascism. Saint-Exupéry did not stay away from Europe for long through, as he returned to his homeland in 1943 (right around the publication of The Little Prince) to help with the war effort. On a fateful day in 1944 – July 31st, 1944, to be exact – Saint-Exupéry left on a reconnaissance mission from the island of Corsica. His plane, a Lockheed Lightning P-38, and Saint-Exupéry himself were never seen again. Many theories arose, that he had lost control of the plane, that he had committed suicide (French president Charles de Gaulle had implied publicly that Saint-Exupéry supported the German war effort and this caused the author to begin to drink more heavily than regularly and gave him bouts of depression), or that he had been shot down near Marseille and his plane lost at sea. Until 1998, no clues had arisen of his whereabouts and he had become the Amelia Earhart of the literary scene. In 1998 fishermen off of the coast of Marseille dragged up a silver bracelet with Saint-Exupéry’s name, publisher’s name and New York address on it – an ID bracelet. Shortly thereafter, divers picked up a wrecked plane, believed to be Saint-Exupéry’s, and even more theories arose. A German fighter pilot emerged who claimed to have felt shame for decades that he had been the one to shoot down one of his literary idols (after all, Saint-Exupéry wrote often of pilots and aviation before publishing The Little Prince). Perhaps we will never know the truth. But what we do know is infinitely more important… and was taught to us by Saint-Exupéry himself.

“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.” Well said, Little Prince. Here’s to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry… may he rest in peace.

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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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Happy 90th Birthday to the Creator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar

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eric carleEric Carle was born on June 25th, 1929 in Syracuse, New York, but his family originally being from Germany they moved back there and he was educated in art in Stuttgart. His father was drafted into the German army at the beginning of WWII, and eventually taken prisoner by Soviet Forces. Carle himself was also conscripted by the German government at the age of 15 to spend time with other boys his age building trenches on the Siegfried Line. Throughout all this time, Carle dreamed of returning to the United States, and finally, upon turning 23 he moved back to New York City with only $40 to his name. Carle was able to land a job as a graphic designer at The New York Times. Less than a year later, unfortunately, Carle was drafted once more into war, and America sent the recent civilian to the Korean War, where he was stationed back in Germany until discharged a year later at the end of the war. After returning to New York, Carle once more took up his job at The New York Times for a time, before becoming the art director for an advertising agency in the city. 

eric carleIt was at this agency that author Bill Martin Jr. spotted a lobster Carle had drawn for an advert illustration and Martin decided to ask Carle to collaborate with him on a book for children – the result of which is one of Carle’s best known works… Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? was published in 1967. The book was an immediate success for Martin (who authored the story) and Carle, and in relatively short time it became a best-seller. This popularity jump-started Carle’s career in books, and within just two years he was both writing and illustrating his own.

Screen Shot 2019-06-22 at 2.05.58 PMOne reason behind the popularity of Carle’s work is that his illustrations are so very unique. He creates collages using hand-painted paper, which he then cuts to shape and layers to create the right colors and designs. A 30-minute video of Carle’s work, both in his design, and the way he carries out his ideas, and his work with his wife and children around the world can be seen here! This video, “The Art of Picture Books. Illustrating, story telling and making meaning with children” might be an older documentary, but we cannot recommend it enough to give our readers an overview of this famous artist and the beautiful, captivating and distinctive exceptional works that he has given to children throughout the years.

How famous is he, you might ask? Well, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold more than 46 million copies, having been translated into over 65 languages. According to some, that is roughly “equivalent to 1.8 copies being sold every minute” since its publication in 1969. Wow! So on this Eric Carle’s 90th Birthday, we’d like to give a warm thank you to him for his decades worth of entertainment and dedication to children around the world!

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The Prince of Paradox

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Who WAS G. K. Chesterton?

According to many, he is one of the most prolific and best writers of the early 20th century – and yet he is not one often found on school curriculums or on the average household shelf. So the question is… who was G. K. Chesterton and how did he contribute to the literary world and become his nickname – “The Prince of Paradox”? Let’s find out.

chesterton3Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born on May 29th, 1874, in Kensington, London. His childhood is not elaborately researched, but we do know that he was born to a family of Unitarians, and as a young man was interested in the occult and regularly played (or practiced) with a Quija board with his younger brother (and only sibling) Cecil. He was educated at St. Paul’s School in London, but instead of continuing on to a university as you might have expected, Chesterton attended the Slade School of Art in London – in hopes of eventually becoming an illustrator. Though at Slade Chesterton took lessons in both art and literature, Chesterton left without a degree in either! 

RNS-CHESTERTON-SOCIETYWhen Chesterton was 27 years old, he married Frances Alice Blogg – an author herself, who would prove to be a major influence on Chesterton’s writing and religious life throughout the years. As www.chesterton.org mentions, Frances was in charge of all aspects of Chesterton’s life – kept his schedule for him, kept house, and kept him in check. According to the site, Chesterton often “had no idea where or when his next appointment was. He did much of his writing in train stations, since he usually missed the train he was supposed to catch. In one famous anecdote, he wired his wife, saying, ‘Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?’” To which Mrs. Chesterton would almost inevitably respond with “Home.” The Chesterton’s were perhaps the epitome of the phrase “Behind every great man is an even greater woman.” 

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Chesterton cut an amusing figure, indeed. He was 6 foot, 4 inches tall, and weighed almost 300 pounds. He could often be found laughing at himself, smoking a cigar, and scribbling away in the oddest of places. And what was he scribbling? Well – that is a question, isn’t it! Around the turn of the century, Chesterton worked as a freelance art and literary critic before 1902, when the Daily News gave him his own weekly opinion column. From then until the mid 1930s, Chesterton pushed out a steady stream of work – be they stories, poems, essays, articles, biographies or critiques – Chesterton wrote them all. Some of his most notable works included The Napoleon of Notting Hill (a book said to have influenced the setting of Orwell’s 1984), a critical study of Charles Dickens (which you know we love to hear), Orthodoxy (did we mention he was also a theologian?), the Father Brown short stories (has anyone read these? A Catholic priest who solves ghastly crimes and putters about resolving conflicts in his small town? I love them – think Miss Marple-esque), Eugenics and Other Evils (this guy really does get around in terms of subject matter), and The Everlasting Man (the book which reportedly turned C.S. Lewis’ face towards Christianity). Now that’s a resume, eh?! And of course – that is only a smattering of the work Chesterton produced. (The total of which includes roughly 80 books, hundreds of poems, 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and a few plays – jeez!)

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So why the nickname? Well a paradox is defined as: “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.” Throughout his work, Chesterton consistently employs a long scope of humor and wit. This is true in both his fiction and non-fiction – and he often used paradoxes to make severe, if humorous (and not to mention true) statements on government, policies, religion, literature and humanity. For example – one of Chesterton’s political paradoxes could still occasionally be considered true today! He said “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” Ouch! As the Imaginative Conservative (online blog) puts it, “Chesterton show[ed] us that life is full of paradoxes. It is full of those apparent contradictions, those incongruous juxtapositions, that point to deeper truths. Take, for instance, the fact that it takes a big man to know how small he is, or the fact that pride is the sin of a small man who thinks he is big.” Indeed, even more of Chesterton’s paradoxes come into play in his studies of religion – where he considers Christ one of the greatest masters of the paradox. 

In all, G. K. Chesterton is not read as widely as he ought to be – considering the breadth of his work and the fact that, if you look hard enough, there is surely something of his for each and every one of us! My advice? Start with Father Brown… you won’t be disappointed!

Happy Birthday to this author, one of the most influential authors of the 20th century!

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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.
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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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The American Anniversary of the (American) English Language

Many men born in the states during and after the revolution were more die-hard Americans than any of the foam fingered MAGA supporters we see today. After all, they were the children of the revolution… either they or their fathers fought hard to ensure our country’s freedom, and they weren’t about to let us forget it. They used whatever skills they had – political? They wrote the Constitution. Physical? They fought in battles. Academic? They wrote Declaration of Independence, or essays on our rights… or a dictionary of the American English language. Today we’d like to discuss one such man – who wrote the first American dictionary. With its over 70,000 entries it was more conclusive than ever before, and included words specific to America.

We may be young… but we invented the word “hickory.” So there.

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Noah Webster was born in 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut. His father, though a farmer by trade, was at the same time a deacon of their local church, captain of the town’s small militia, and a founder of the local book society (which later because the local public library). Though his father did not have extensive educational knowledge, Webster (Sr.) did have a thirst for learning, comprehension, and understanding. His wife began teaching her son to read and write at a young age, and after attending small, dilapidated schools in the region and using a private tutor, and after his father mortgaged their family farm to pay the tuition fees, Noah Webster was able to enroll at Yale College when he was 16 years old… during the height of revolutionary unrest, and he continued studying during the Revolutionary War.

After graduating from Yale, Webster began teaching, then quit to study law, and finally passed the bar exam in 1781. One can imagine it was trying times to be finding a job and earning a living, what with the Revolutionary War still raging on. He began a small private school in Western Connecticut that he closed shortly thereafter, then he wrote essays for local papers praising the Revolution, and then he opened yet another school, but this time for the wealthy of New York. It was at this establishment that he began work on his first “speller” – a grammar and reader for use in elementary classes. The revenue from this first venture is what enabled Webster to spend the next years working on his infamous dictionary.

webster1Webster married Rebecca Greenleaf in 1789, and as she was of good breeding (man, I don’t get to use that phrase often enough) he was able to join higher levels of society in Connecticut than he had been. (They would later have 8 children, but that is neither here nor there.) Due to his beliefs in the revolution and conviction in America’s greatness, one Alexander Hamilton loaned him $1,500 in 1793 to move to New York and become the editor for the Federalist Papers.  For the next few decades, Webster spent much of his time being one of the most profuse authors of the time, especially when it came to political reports, but also in regard to textbooks and articles across the board.

Over these years, Webster focused on one specific way he personally could help his beloved new country. He wanted to promote an American approach to educating our children, and wanted to “rescue our native tongue from the ‘clamour of pedantry’ that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation.” He said that the English language had suffered the British aristocracy’s approach to spelling and pronunciation – an outdated and elite way of speaking and teaching. He eventually began work on his lifetime’s achievement… The Webster Dictionary.

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In 1806 Webster published the first attempt – A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language – the first actual American dictionary of its kind, but knew immediately it was not enough. He continued working on his opus. He learned somewhere between 26-28 languages in evaluate their importances and meanings, and connected with people around the east coast of the new America in order to gather words and meanings from around the “country.” At the tender age of 70, Webster published his dictionary in 1828. Though at first it only sold 2,500 copies, and Webster ended up re-financing his home to pay for a second edition… we all know the eternal significance his dictionary would play on us all… as the Webster (now Webster-Merriam, after rights were granted to the publishing brothers in 1843) Dictionary is still used in schools and households across the United States today.

This week we celebrate its publication (as the copyright was registered by Webster on April 14th, 1828) and the lasting impact it has had on America… just as Noah Webster wished it to.

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Credit: University of Washington libraries.

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Happy Birthday to the Most Irritating Houseguest Charles Dickens Ever Had

Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark, on the second of April, 1805. As a small child, Andersen’s father read to him Arabian Nights - thus introducing the young child to both classic literature and what one might deem a “fairy tale”. At the age of 14, he moved to the capital to become an actor – and though he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theatre… once his voice changed the school advised him to focus instead on becoming a poet… a suggestion that he later turned into authorship.

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Fairytales seemed to be part of Andersen’s literary journey from the beginning, as several of his early stories revolved around tales he heard as a child himself. By the age of 30, Andersen was already writing profusely and showing his work. In fact, in 1833 at the age of 28 he had already received a small travel grant from the king of Denmark to travel through Europe and log the stories he found there. And, well… write he did!

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Andersen is most well-known for his fairytale translations, no one can deny this fact. In 1835 he published the first two installments of his Fairy Tales, with the second installment arriving only two years later. Unfortunately, his collection which included tales such as The Princess and the PeaThumbelinaThe Little Mermaid, and The Emperor’s New Clothes did not sell well at first. Part of the problem was in the translations of these well-known stories. Andersen’s ability to write did not cover his lack of innate foreign language skills.

After honing his skills and continuing to publish fairy tales for ten years, Andersen finally had a breakthrough in 1845 after his translation of The Little Mermaid appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany (a periodical). Soon after, his story was published in a few volumes following its reprint, including Wonderful Stories for Children. A review of the story was published in The Athenæum in London in February of 1846, and the review sang its praises as “a book for grandfathers no less than grandchildren, not a word of which will be skipped by those who have it once in hand.” Andersen became a king of fairytales (of sorts) and would continue translating and publishing them until 1872.

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During his heyday of publishing fairytales from around the Europe, Anderson published various travelogues that he had written during his many journeys abroad while accumulating stories for his collections. Though his travel journals do approach the subject matter in a similar way to his contemporaries’ travel journals, singularly he used his own strengths to expand the style to meet his own requirements. He combines factual evidence and graphic/detailed reports of his experiences with more reflective and meditative verse on various concerns, including his authorship, the issue of timelessness,  and the essence of works of fiction in the travel writing genre. His travelogue In Sweden even contains local fairy tales! (The man just didn’t know how to take a break…)

In 1847 a most happy occurrence happened for Andersen – he traveled to England for the first time and enjoyed resounding success among his fairytale fans. Andersen was able to meet one of his idols, one Charles Dickens, at one of the many parties of a Countess of Blessington. Both authors resonated on certain levels – they were both immensely popular (though Dickens more so, of course), and both took the time to portray citizens of the lower classes in their works. A decade later, Andersen visited Dickens at Gads Hill Place, Dickens’ home – a visit which unfortunately turned into an over-extended stay of over five weeks. Dickens and his family were dismayed that their Victorian politeness allowed a man, even one as highly respected and liked as Andersen, to overstay their welcome by so long. (Read our blog on the extended stay here.) Eventually Andersen had to be asked to leave, and Dickens stopped communication with the author, much to Andersen’s confusion.

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When Andersen turned 67, he took a tumble out of bed and unfortunately was never able to recover from his injuries. Andersen developed liver cancer shortly thereafter and died surrounded by friends (having never married). He was internationally esteemed at the time of his death, and to this day his name immediately recalls international fairytale stories to all of our minds! Happy Birthday to the king of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen!

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