literary-history

‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow Is Enuf’, Ntozake Shange, Shameless Hussy Press, San Lorenzo, California, 1976.

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April 23rd 1616: William Shakespeare dies

On this day in 1616, 400 years ago, English playwright William Shakespeare died in Stratford-upon-Avon. Born in Stratford on April 23rd 1564, Shakespeare was the son of John Shakespeare, a leather merchant and glove maker, and local heiress Mary Arden. Little is known about Shakespeare’s early life, and he had little formal education, which leads some to question the authenticity of his plays. Shakespeare met a woman called Anne Hathaway when he was 18 years old. After a quick courtship, the couple married in November 1582, going on to have three children. Scholars generally believe that Shakespeare moved to London in the late 1580s and began working at local theatres. By the 1590s, it appears Shakespeare was working as an actor and playwright for the acting company Lord Chamberlain’s Men. By 1600, Shakespeare was an established playwright, having bought a large family home in Stratford and building the Globe Theatre in London with his business partners. Throughout his career, Shakespeare wrote around 38 plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear, and 154 sonnets. It is believed that he died on April 23rd 1616 - his 52nd birthday. Shakespeare bequeathed most of his belongings to his eldest daughter, leaving his widow his ‘second-best bed’, which is assumed to have been their marital bed. His extraordinary stories, and unique rhetorical style - inventing several words and phrases which have since entered the lexicon - make William Shakespeare the most famous writer in history.

400 years ago today

A Babylonian Princess Poet

Enheduanna, the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BCE), composed numerous poems and hymns, such as the one above written in Sumerian and dedicated to the goddess Inanna (the Sumerian counterpart to Ishtar). During her lifetime, Enheduanna served as a high priestess of the moon god, Nanna, in the city of Ur. A genuine creative talent, she is also remembered as one of the first named authors in history. Although the tablet above is somewhat damaged, it provides a good example of a later copy of one of her hymns, which shows that her work continued to be read and taught in scribal schools well into the second millennium BCE. (Source)

Schoyen Collection, MS 2367/1.

This is so great, I'm stealing it from Warren to make it rebloggable

printedvelvet asks:

“Aside from stuff Phillip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson, what’s on your must-read cyberpunk novels and comics list?”

Warren says

Okay.  Deep breath.

Cyberpunk, also known as Radical Hard SF or The Movement, was born around 1980 and didn’t survive that decade.  (Some people map the end to 1992, with Neal Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH.)  Philip K Dick had no affiliation with the movement, and was dead by 1982, two years before William Gibson published NEUROMANCER.  People tend to associate Dick with cyberpunk because of BLADE RUNNER, particularly its visuals, which had nothing to do with the novel, but were so strikingly of the speculative zeitgeist that in 1982 William Gibson had to get out of his cinema seat and leave the screening because it looked too much like what was in his head.

Phil Dick was pre-cyberpunk.  He, JG Ballard and Alfred Bester were major touchstones for the movement.  Ballard’s CRASH and Bester’s STARS MY DESTINATION and THE DEMOLISHED MAN are essential.  Also John Brunner’s STAND ON ZANZIBAR, THE SHEEP LOOK UP, and, most importantly for cyberpunk’s ancestry, THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER.

Of the cyberpunk period itself, you will need William Gibson’s first trilogy, NEUROMANCER, COUNT ZERO and MONA LISA OVERDRIVE.  Also, Bruce Sterling’s THE ARTIFICIAL KID and ISLANDS IN THE NET.  Richard Kadrey’s METROPHAGE.  Rudy Rucker’s SOFTWARE and WETWARE.  Pat Cadigan’s TEA FROM AN EMPTY CUP.  That should keep you going for a bit.

FWIW, I agree with all of what Warren says, and please consider this another vote for METROPHAGE, which is amazing.

How soon hath Time the suttle theef of youth,
Stoln on his wing my three and twentith yeer!
My hasting dayes flie on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
—  John Milton has a personal crisis about his lack of achievement at the age of 23.
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July 11th 1960: To Kill a Mockingbird published

On this day in 1960, the novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee was published by J.B Lippincott & Co. The novel tells the story of the trial of a young African-American man in Alabama in the 1930s, and is told from the perspective of the daughter of the defendant’s lawyer, Scout Finch. Lee was partly inspired by events she recalled from her own childhood growing up in Alabama in the days of Jim Crow segregation. 'To Kill a Mockingbird’ was released during a turbulent time for American race relations, as the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement was beginning to get underway with sit-ins and Freedom Rides in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The novel was originally going to be called 'Atticus’ for Scout’s father and the moral centre of the story, but was renamed for one of Atticus’s iconic lines. The novel was an immediate success, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. In 1962 it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck and featuring the film debut of Robert Duvall as the elusive Boo Radley. Harper Lee never published another novel and remains reclusive from the press, though she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. The influence of 'To Kill a Mockingbird’ has never faded in the 54 years since its release, and is a favourite of many for its warmth and humour while tackling some of the most troubling issues of its day.

“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”

Today is the birthday of Beatrix Potter, born on this day in British history, 28 July 1866. She is most remembered for her work as an author and illustrator of children’s books. Her most famous creation, Peter Rabbit, is still a popular and well loved character today.

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Dante’s Divine Comedy

Nearly two hundred years after its original publication, Dante’s Divine Comedy was republished in 1502 with Italian Renaissance flair. The Renaissance brought about a greater desire for erudite texts; individuals who collected such works were seen as worldly and refined. To meet this growing demand, books became smaller and less cumbersome, which explains why this edition of Divine Comedy almost fits in the palm of your hand.

The first illustration above is the title page of Divine Comedy, and the second illustration is an introduction the Inferno section that serves as the starting point of Dante’s journey. Dante then travels to purgatory and paradise. Much scholarship has focused on Inferno, which has proven to be the most captivating of the three realms Dante visits.

The full article about Dante’s Divine Comedy can be read at: http://www.newberry.org/infernal-imagery

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September 21st 1937: The Hobbit published

On this day in 1937, J.R.R Tolkein’s fantasy novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was published in the United Kingdom. The novel follows the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, as he assists a group of dwarves to reclaim their homeland, and tries to claim a share of treasure guarded by the fearsome dragon Smaug. Tolkein, an academic at Oxford University, found inspiration for the novel in his studies of Old Norse mythology and language. Upon completion, Tolkein had several notable literary friends, including C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame, read the manuscript. The novel was published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd. in September 1937, with an initial run of 1,500 copies, which quickly sold out. The Hobbit was a great success, popular among adults and reviewers despite its childlike tone, and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. The popularity of The Hobbit led Tolkein’s publisher to request a sequel, which became The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), the first book in The Lord of the Rings series. His work on these novels led Tolkein to amend certain portions of The Hobbit to accommodate Middle Earth lore introduced in the new books. The Fellowship of the Ring was followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King, and the trilogy - along with its precursor The Hobbit - remain immensely popular literary classics.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

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First Edition of The Hobbit is Published

21 September 1937

The first edition of The Hobbit was published on this day in British history, 21 September 1937. Published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd. of London, the first edition was printed in a run of 1,500 copies, all of which had sold by December 1937. This first printing was illustrated in black and white by Tolkien, who designed the dust jacket as well.

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What Jane Saw: Recreation of the 1813 Joshua Reynolds Retrospective Exhibit Attended by Jane Austen

On 24 May 1813, Jane Austen visited an important and  much-talked-about art exhibit at the British Institution in Pall Mall, London. The show  was a retrospective of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), England’s  celebrated portrait painter.

No visual record of this show is known to have survived, although it  attracted hundreds of daily visitors during its much-publicized three-month run.  However, many details of the exhibit can be reconstructed from the original 1813  "Catalogue of Pictures,“ a one-shilling pamphlet purchased by visitors as a guide  through the three large rooms where hung 141 paintings by Reynolds. Armed with  surviving copies of this pamphlet, narrative accounts in nineteenth-century newspapers  and books, and precise architectural measurements of the British Institution’s exhibit  space, this website reconstructs the Reynolds show as Jane Austen (as well as any Jane  Doe) saw it.

This is a very interesting project, overseen by The University of Texas at Austin English Department, a link to which was dropped into my inbox recently by zeborahnz. The Catalogue of Pictures actually links to the paintings it describes, so that you can view all 141 paintings that appeared in the exhibit in 1813, along with descriptive text and information about the painting in question. You will literally see What Jane Saw.

When I talk about “historical accuracy”, and the way this phrase is bandied about in popular culture in order to enforce some kind of assumed ubiquitous whiteness of “the past”, I’m always struck by the fact if you actually recreate something from European history letter by letter according to documentation, the diversity and vibrancy, the truth of the past, becomes apparent almost immediately.

Interestingly enough, I’m reminded of someone who sent me a message about the development of a game called Ever Jane, an MMORPG set in Regency England and based on Austen’s books, which had restricted the option of race to white because of “historical accuracy”:

I told the makers of ‘Ever, Jane’ (a new MMORPG based on Jane Austen’s books and the early regency period) that restricting the race to white people because of 'historical accuracy’ was ridiculous and told them to come check out your blog. The founder seemed really enthusiastic & stuff, so she may be perusing your posts now.

The game did end up being created (although it is still in development), and I’m curious if they ever followed through with adding some diversity to their character creation options.

There are those who, conceding the point that there were obvious and documented presence of those we would consider People of Color, would then insist that Austen’s novels didn’t feature any. They would be wrong. Many have also insisted that they would not have considered themselves “People of Color.” Again, wrong.

Austen had an unfinished novel called Sanditon, which has been subject to many academic analyses and explorations, including the character of Miss Lambe. Miss Lambe is a West Indian heiress of mixed race whose presence, name, and function within the narrative echoes rather directly an anonymous novel very likely to have been read by and influenced Austen: The Woman of Colour (1808):

[From Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places by Margaret Doody, p. 207]

You can read a bit more about the novel here, including a direct commentary on the manner in which our current stereotypes and cultural biases inform our sense of what is and is not anachronistic, as well as what we expect from the eponymous “Woman of Colour”:

It teaches well, but students need more help thinking of the novel within its cultural moment than I anticipated.

 The phrase “woman of colour” has such modern overtones that they begin the novel expecting a more explicit critique of bigotry and place on Olivia their own experiences of reading women of color (primary in American literature)—either as abject victims or cultural warriors.  Olivia is neither of these, and even sophisticated graduate students struggled with how dutiful she is as she faces obstacle after heart-breaking disappointment. 

Her temperament prompts an interesting discussion about the modern student’s idea of what makes a “heroine” (a similar question comes up when students encounter Austen’s Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, a novel with its own complicated relationship with the slave trade).   More than a female protagonist, students want a woman who is heroic.  So while they might judge Moll Flanders for her sexual machinations and are suspicious but eventually accepting Evelina’s saintliness, they have very clear expectations of a woman of color.  They see the sexism that permeates eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction as “of the time,” but this impulse to historicize (primarily as a way to gloss over the nuances of nineteenth-century sexism) does not extend to the bigotry and ignorance of racism.  They are frustrated by the decision she makes at the end of the novel and want to see those who have wronged her punished. 

The myriad ways we are confronted with the past and its cultural and historical realities, but moreover, the way we are confronted with our own expectations of it, and what is really at the core of this project (MPoC).

It’s my hope that any Austen fans reading this will bring a whole new perspective to their reading, and perhaps even take a look at The Woman of Colour to add depth and nuance to their historical fansquee, SCA and cosplay recreations, gaming activities, and discussions.

‘You want to know what Classics are?’ said a drunk Dean of Admissions to me at a faculty party a couple of years ago. 'I’ll tell you what Classics are. Wars and homos.’ A sententious and vulgar statement, certainly, but like many such gnomic vulgarities, it also contains a tiny splinter of truth.
—  The Secret History - Donna Tartt