Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Birthdays- A Literary Full House

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Minister, Essayist, Poet, Public Intellectual, Lecturer
Fellow, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences

A middling student at Harvard, Emerson cast about for an identify and a career for a number of years before embarking as a lecturer. He gave some 1800 talks on the Lyceum circuit and other occasions over the next 46 years, revising and publishing many of them in books of essays throughout his career. His lecture, “The American Scholar” (1837) set out a manifesto for intellectual life in the rising republic; “On Nature” laid the groundwork for his involvement with Margaret Fuller and the Transcendentalist Movement.

From 1829 to 1832 Emerson pastored Second Church, the Boston Unitarian congregation; he resigned as he developed doubts about the service of the sacrament and the efficacy of public prayer. His 1838 Harvard Divinity school lecture, in which he declared Jesus a “great man” but, at best a demigod created by Christianity, caused a scandal and his debarment from speaking at Harvard for the next thirty years.

Emerson had an enormous gift for friendship; he encouraged Whitman; was Thoreau’s best friend and a close familiar to Hawthorne; he met most of the great writers of Europe on his overseas trips. He was William James’s godfather, and managed the neat trick of befriending both Margaret Fuller and Thomas Carlyle (who called her a “strange, lilting, lean old maid,” when- in one of her woolier moments- she cried, “I accept the Universe!”, Carlyle replied, “Gad! She’d better!”)

By the late 1860s Emerson began having trouble with his memory and, later, reading. He carried on until his condition led him to withdraw from public life in 1879. He died three years later.

Though by most accounts- Melville thought Emerson self-absorbed and conceited- the leading intellectual of the 19th century, Emerson has become something of a period piece due to the lack of coherence in his philosophy and his ambivalence on slavery (he opposed it, but not tried to avoid most public advocacy) and racial equality (he didn’t think it possible). But he is not without his fans: his Facebook page has 207,000 followers.

Related sites:
Danny Heitman, “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Beyond the Greeting Cards,” Humanities, May/June 2013


Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton of Knebworth, PC  (1803-1873)
Member of Parliament 1831-41; 1852-66
Colonial Secretary, 1858-59
Member, House of Lords, 1866-1873

Prolific, madly popular in his time (he outsold Dickens); inspirer of Verdi and Wagner; decliner of the throne of Greece; raised to the peerage and buried in Westminster Abbey, Bulwer-Lytton is a modern-day punchline, laid low by Snoopy and namesake to a contest celebrating execrably over-the-top opening lines to non-existent novels.

Son of a general who married well, Bulwer (he assumed his mother’s name, and coat of arms pursuant to her will, in 1844) published his first book at 17 and won the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for Poetry at Cambridge.  In 1827 he married Rosina Wheeler, a famed Irish beauty, against his mother’s wishes. She promptly cut him off, forcing him to make a living on his own. Like his friend and fellow dandy-about-town, Benjamin Disraeli, he pursued the twin career paths of literature and politics. The time and stress required of his ambitions, however, but a severe strain on the marriage; he had affairs and Rosina stewed. After six years and two children they separated, and in 1836 it was made legal.

Rosina published a “near-libelous novel” based on Bulwer’s life in 1839, and spent the next four decades blackening his reputation whenever possible. Meantime, Bulwer was elected to Parliament in 1831, and made such a name that in three years he was offered the Admiralty by Lord Melbourne. Bulwer declined; he was too busy by then as an author). He stood down in 1841; then returned in 1852 and rose to Colonial Secretary in 1858. As he stood for Parliament that year, Rosina descended to denounce him at public meetings; he cut off her allowance, barred her seeing their children, threatened her publisher with legal action, and, briefly, had her committed.

Bulwer’s 1828 novel, Pelham made his name as the Bret Easton Ellis of his day. His hero’s habit of wearing only black evening clothes so seized the upper-class imagination, it became de rigeuer, and continues to this day. In 1830 he published Paul Clifford, which opened with the deathless line: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) remains his most-read work; the now-forgotten Rienzi (1835) inspired a still-performed opera by Wagner- one of five Bulwer works transformed by composers. Bulwer’s much-mocked prose style- vivid- even florid, with frequent changes in point of view- was nevertheless what drove his popularity in the pre-movie and television age, when authors gave highly dramatic- and lucrative- readings in public, and lent itself to operatic and theatrical production. Among his more lasting turns of phrase include “worshipping the almighty dollar,” “the great unwashed”, and “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Bulwer’s fertile imagination popularized the Hollow Earth Theory in an 1871 sci-fi novel; a horror tale was an inspiration to Bram Stoker for Dracula; and he convinced Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations to let Pip and Estella join together. Over his objections, the Rosicrucians claimed him as a patron saint after a sympathetic portrayal of their movement in another book. One of Bulwer’s literary rivals, Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, detested Bulwer’s books, and savaged them mercilessly as book editor of the influential Fraser’s Magazine; his venomous pen contributed mightily to the post-mortem decline in Bulwer’s reputation.


Related Sites:


Raymond Clevie Carver, Jr. (1938-1988)
Poet, short story writer

Born to a poor family in the Pacific Northwest, Carver worked as a laborer, janitor, delivery man, delivery driver, library assistant, and sawmill worker after marrying at 19. He and his wife both struggled to raise a family and complete their education. After taking a writing workshop led by novelist John Gardner, Carver devoted himself to writing, but his success was sporadic and he spent his 30s moving in and out of temporary teaching posts, graduate programs he never finished, and an overnight hospital janitorial job where he got all his work done the first hour and spent the next seven writing. Frustrated by his lack of success, Carver took up drinking in the early 1970s and seemed destined for an early grave until he sobered up in 1977. His last decade was one of considerable commercial and critical success in collaboration with his influential editor, Gordon Lish, who pared Carver’s work down to the spare, laconic form that made him one of the most influential American short story writers of the late 20th century.
Shortly after he quit drinking, Carver met the writer Tess Gallagher and left his wife. Gallagher became his muse and manager; the lived together until they married in 1988, six weeks before his died of lung cancer. Gallagher has remained his literary executor and defender; in 2008 she got into a public feud with Gordon Lish over republishing Carver’s stories as they were written, before Lish’s edits.  Carver’s work also inspired the 1993 Robert Altman film, Short Cuts.

Related sites:
“The Art of Fiction, No. 76,” Paris Review, Summer, 1983
Giles Harvey, “The Two Raymond Carvers,” The New York Review of Books, May 27, 2010


Theodore Huebner Roethke (1908-1963)
Poet, teacher
Recipient, The Pulitzer Prize (1954)
Recipient, The National Book Award (1959, 1965)
Recipient, The Bollingen Prize (1959)
Professor of Writing, Michigan State University, Lafayette College, Bennington College, Pennsylvania State, University of Washington

Immensely influential as a teacher- four of his students were nominated for Pulitzers; two won- Roethke was a standard-issue postwar American poet, prone to depression and bouts of heavy drinking. Seattle’s Blue Moon Tavern, a dive bar near the UW campus, became the hub of Roethke’s social circle, which included students and friends Richard Hugo,Carolyn Mizer, David Waggoner, the late poet laureate Stanley Kunitz, Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg. They sealed the reputation of the bar, which opened in 1934 as a haven for literary poseurs and tourists to this day; in 1995 the city of Seattle named the alley next to the tavern the Roethke Mews.

Related Sites:
Stanley Kunitz, “Theodore Roethke,” The New York Review of Books, October 17, 1963

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