Friday, April 1, 2022

Great Minds Born in April

Here are all the "Great Minds" posts made in April, 2022.

April 1

  • William Harvey (1578-1657) was an English physician who, in his De Motu Cordis (On the Circulation of Blood), was able to clearly and thoroughly describe the action of the heart, and the ways in which blood is moved through the body. Harvey showed how the heart's left ventricle pushed "fresh" blood through the arteries of the body, and when the "spent" blood returned the right ventricle sent it through the pulmonary artery to the lungs to be reoxygenated. He also discovered the function of the valves in the veins, which prevent blood from flowing backward (away from the heart). This put Harvey at odds with the accepted theory: the Greek physician Galen (129-216 CE) thought that the heart produced heat, and the lungs cooled the blood like a radiator.
  • John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) was an English poet and courtier. Reacting against the "spiritual authoritarianism" of the Puritan era, he became known for his rakish lifestyle and poetry. Unsurprisingly he died as a result of venereal disease at the age of 33. He was described as a satirist and was considered to be a great poet and a considerable wit. The Victorians censored his poetry (not without cause) but was reappraised in the 1920s. Perhaps his best-known work today is the 170 or so lines of "A Satyr [Satire] Against Reason and Mankind," which subordinates reason to sense, which begins with him choosing rather to be a Dog, a Monkey, or a Bear" than to be "that vain Animal, Who is so proud of being Rational."
  • Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) was French poet and dramatist remembered these days (by most) only for his play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the title character hopelessly loves his distant cousin Roxane, but despite his many talents (fighting, poetry, music) his obnoxiously large nose forces him to court her through a surrogate, the hapless young cadet Christian de Neuvillette. The last scenes are heartbreaking.
  • Milan Kundera (1929 - ) is a Czech-born French writer whose best-known work is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, about the lives of two women, two men, and a dog during the 1968 Prague Spring period of Czechoslovak history, a half-year of reform and opening before the Soviet Union reasserted its control. He also wrote The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a collection of seven separate short stories (linked by common themes) that consider the nature of forgetting.
April 2
  • Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was an Italian adventurer and author, an early version of the modern self-promoter whose autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life), "sold" the public on his complicated and elaborate affairs with women, to the point that his name now means "womanizer." In the process he became one of the most authentic sources regarding the customs and norms of European social life during the 18th century.
  • Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a Danish author who actually wrote plays, travel literature, novels, and poems, but we remember him today for his 156 fairy tales. One list of his "top ten" includes "The Emperor's New Clothes," about a vain emperor who gets exposed before his subjects; "The Little Mermaid," who wants to gain a human soul; "The Nightingale," in which the real thing competes with a mechanical bird for an emperor's favor; "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," who loves a paper ballerina; "The Red Shoes," about a vain girl forced to dance non-stop in her fancy footwear; "The Princess and the Pea," about a young woman whose sensitivity proves her royal ancestry; "The Snow Queen," on the struggle between good and evil as played out in the love between two children, Gerda and her friend Kai; "The Ugly Duckling," about a baby bird who is more than he seems; "The Little Match Girl," about a dying child's dreams and hope; and "Thumbelina," about a tiny girl who dodges loathsome critters to marry a flower-fairy prince. Many of Andersen's stories have inspired ballets, plays, and animated and live-action films.
  • Emile Zola (1840-1902) was a French novelist, playwright, and journalist. Though he wrote plenty--he has been called the most prominent French novelist of the late 19th century--he seems to have been as famous for his life of political activism as for his written works. His Les Rougon-Macquart is a monumental 20-novel series; Therese Raquin is perhaps more readable. At his death (by accidental asphyxiation due to a blocked chimney) his funeral was attended by thousands; ultimately, his remains were placed in the Panthéon, sharing a crypt with Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.
April 3
  • George Herbert (1593-1633) was a Welsh poet and Anglican priest. He was associated with the metaphysical poets, and is recognized as "one of the foremost British devotional lyricists." Though he studied to be a priest, he detoured into politics until the death of his patron King James I. He then renewed his interest in ordination and took holy orders, serving the remaining three years of his life in a rural parish. Never a healthy man, he died of consumption at age 39. His works include The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, which contained all of his English poems; and A Priest to the Temple (also called The Country Parson), a prose guide to rural ministry.
  • Washington Irving (1783-1859), American short story writer, essayist, and historian, is considered to be the first American author to become a best-seller in Europe. His best-known works are short stories like "Rip Van Winkle," about a man who falls asleep in the woods for over 20 years; and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," about a "Headless Horseman" playing a prank on poor schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. Though these popular tales are lighthearted, Irving was quite a serious author, who drew on local history for these stories, and was in fact as much a historiographer and biographer as he was a storyteller. He wrote biographies of great men like George Washington (in five volumes!) and Muhammad, as well as histories of Spain (he was in fact U.S. ambassador to Spain between 1842 and 1846). Irving was named for George Washington, whom he was lucky enough to meet at age six. In addition to his own work, Washington Irving inspired such 19th-century American greats as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), and Edgar Allan Poe.
  • Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) was an American author and cleric. His uncle was the politician and Unitarian pastor Edward Everett, and his great-uncle the Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale. He wrote a wide variety of works in fiction, history and biography, and advanced a number of social reforms, including religious tolerance, the abolition of slavery, and wider education. One of his most famous works was the story "The Man Without a Country," which tells the (fictional) story of American Army lieutenant Philip Nolan. The character was tried for treason along with Aaron Burr, who really was tried for that offense (but acquitted); during the trial Nolan shouts, "I wish I may never hear of the United States again!" The shocked judge sentences him to spend the rest of his days at sea without so much as a word of news about the United States.
April 4
  • Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) was a Japanese author and critic who wrote Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds), his first novel which, though often said to be unfinished, is widely considered to be Japan's first modern novel in that it concentrates more on psychology than on actions. It describes the changes in the relationships of the four characters as a means of criticizing the growing materialism of the Japanese society. Futabatei was a translator of Russian (particularly Turgenev) and some see in Ukigumo the influence of Russian literature.
  • Robert E. Sherwood (1896-1955) was an American playwright and screenwriter. He won numerous awards: three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (Idiot's Delight, 1936, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, 1939 and There Shall Be No Night, 1941); another Pulitzer, for Biography or Autobiography (Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, 1949; he worked as a speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt); and an Academy Award for Best Screenplay (The Best Years of Our Lives, 1947). He also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock's Rebecca and for the romantic comedy The Bishop's Wife. He was an original member of the Algonquin Round Table, members of which made great sport with his 6 feet 8 inch frame.
  • Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was a French novelist, playwright, and essayist. She was born in what is now Vietnam, where her parents taught French, and which became the backdrop for some of her numerous novels, plays, screenplays, and works of short fiction, including L'Amant (The Lover), about the clandestine romance between a pubescent girl from a struggling French family and an older, wealthy Chinese-Vietnamese man (made into a film starring Jane March). She also wrote the screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
  • Maya Angelou (1928-2014), born Marguerite Annie Johnson, was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist who published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry. She is also credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. The first of her autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, tells of her life up to the age of 17 and and is widely read in high schools and colleges (perhaps more than any other book by an African American woman)--and widely challenged for its unvarnished portrayal of violence and sexuality, and use of "crude" language. Angelou has received numerous honors, including reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
  • James Wilcox (1949 - ) is an American novelist from Louisiana who has written nine comic novels centering around the fictional town of Tula Springs, Louisiana. The best known of these is the first, Modern Baptists, about middle-aged bachelor Bobby Pickens and his half-brother F.X., who has just been released from Angola Prison. He moves in with Bobby which leads to a series of farcical incidents.
April 5
  • Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher, and one of the founders of modern political philosophy. His best-known book, Leviathan, discusses the social contract--the relation of the state to the individual. He also contributed to several other fields, including history, jurisprudence, geometry, physics, theology, ethics, and general philosophy. Cartoonist Bill Watterson named the tiger in his strip Calvin and Hobbes for Hobbes, whom Watterson said held "a dim view of human nature." (Calvin is named for the Protestant reformer John Calvin.)
  • Joseph Lister (1827-1912) was a British surgeon and experimental pathologist who pioneered the practice of antiseptic surgery and preventative medicine. He successfully introduced the use of phenol to sterilize surgical instruments, the patients' skin, sutures, and the surgeons' hands, a meaningful application of the scientific principles proposed by Louis Pasteur. His work led to a reduction in post-operative infections, saving lives. Listerine antiseptic mouthwash was named for him (though he had nothing to do with the product). He wrote the scintillating article "On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery" and, perhaps more interesting for the general reader, The Autobiography of Joseph Lister.
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He was one of the great posers, claiming decadent behavior which many of his contemporaries doubted occurred. He was, however, known to be an alcoholic and sexual masochist who enjoyed being flogged. His alleged misbehavior helped to promote his work, which depicted such "taboo" topics as lesbianism (he helped popularize the use of the word "lesbian"), cannibalism, sado-masochism, and anti-theism. By age 42 his health had deteriorated to the point that he needed to be under the care of a friend for the last 30 years of his life. He is perhaps best remembered for his collection Poems and Ballads, First Series, which explored themes such as the Ocean, Time, and Death.
  • Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was an American educator, author, and presidential advisor. He was born enslaved on a Virginia plantation and taught himself to read and write around age 9 or 10. He worked hard to put himself through college and, at 25 years old, was chosen to lead a new teacher's training college in Alabama, the Tuskegee Institute. He oversaw students in building the school, which emphasized practical trades: his students would not just learn to make buildings and to grow crops and farm animals, but to teach others to do the same. He saw education as the solution to the oppression of American blacks, especially in the South. His two autobiographies, The Story of My Life and Work and Up From Slavery, are worth reading, though the latter is a more polished version of the first and might be read alone.
April 6
  • William L. Manly (1820-1903) was an American pioneer. A number of books on my "great books" list were not really written by "authors" at all. Case in point, one William Lewis Manly, a mid-19th century American pioneer. A fur hunter who became a guide for westward bound wagon trains, he was also a seeker of gold, a farmer, and finally a writer in his last years. His autobiography, Death Valley in '49, chronicles his experience as a "Forty-niner," one of those hardy souls who crossed the continent (his book's first title was From Vermont to California) to try their luck in the California gold rush. After a disastrous experience, Manly did the 220 miles from Death Valley to Los Angeles on foot, then returned to guide his starving party to safety, one of whom may have given that valley its dire name. It's a fascinating read.
  • Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936) was an American investigative journalist of the type called (proudly) "muckrakers." A series of his articles became The Shame of the Cities, about corruption in municipal government. He was born in San Francisco and raised in Sacramento; his family mansion became the California Governor's Mansion in 1903. The first quarter of his Autobiography, "Boy on Horseback," was published separately as a children's book in 1935, its lessons summed up in the observation that "the world was more interesting than I was."
  • James Watson (1928 - ) is an American biologist who, with his colleague Francis Crick, unlocked the secrets of the DNA structure in 1953, later winning a joint Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (along with a third colleague, Maurice Wilkins; a fourth colleague, Rosalind Franklin, has gone largely unrecognized for her contributions to the discovery). By many accounts, Watson is not a very nice guy: colleague E.O. Wilson once described him as "the most unpleasant human being I had ever met." He has tarnished his reputation with repeated statements that attempt to provide a scientific underpinning to racist ideas; he resigned his position as chancellor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York as a result of his comments. Furthermore, in his memoir, Avoid Boring People, he described scientists as "dinosaurs," "deadbeats," "fossils," "has-beens," "mediocre," and "vapid." His 1968 The Double Helix was an unlikely bestseller.
April 7
  • William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was an English Romantic poet. With Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who contributed only four poems, about a third of the book's length), he helped to launch the Romantic Age in English literature with their joint publication Lyrical Ballads, an attempt to make poetry accessible to the average person through verse written in common, everyday language. But his magnum opus is The Prelude, a semi-autobiographical poem from his early years (though revised and expanded a number of times). The title was given after his death; until that time it was referred to as "the poem to Coleridge." Aside from these, his Poems in Two Volumes contained such famous works as "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" and "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." Wordsworth was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1843 until his death.
  • William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) was the foremost Unitarian preacher and theologian in the United States in the early nineteenth century. Not one of the New England Transcendentalists himself, his impassioned sermons and public speeches on liberal theology were among the chief influences on that movement; he also encouraged the theological trends that led to Unitarianism. Many of his written works are the texts from his sermons and lectures, including "On the Elevation of the Laboring Classes." Though not an ardent abolitionist (rather a "benign" racist) he wrote a book on his sometimes-conflicted views called simply Slavery.
  • Gabriela Mistral (1899-1957) was a Chilean poet, educator, and humanist who was the first Latin American author to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature (1945), cited for being "a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world." Her portrait, I am told, appears on the 5,000 Chilean peso bank note. The most famous of her poems translated into English is "His Name is Today," about the urgency of caring for the needs of children now.
  • Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was an American blues singer who sometimes makes me weep. Listen to "Strange Fruit" as an example, but so tragic was her life that even her "happy" songs can move me to tears. Born Eleanora Fagan, her vocal delivery and improvisational skills were strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, including her long-time friend Lester Young. She died at age 44 of cirrhosis.
  • Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) was an American short story writer and novelist who also worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and university professor. Many of his most famous works were short fiction pieces published in the New Yorker. He wrote over a hundred short stories in total, most of which are anthologized in collections Sixty Stories, Forty Stories, and Flying to America. He also wrote four novels--Snow White, The Dead Father, Paradise, and The King--as well as the non-fiction book Guilty Pleasures and collections of other, shorter pieces: The Teachings of Don B. and Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews.
  • Francis Ford Coppola (1939 - ) is an American filmmaker and renowned mad genius. He has created some of Hollywood's most iconic films--The Godfather (in three parts); Apocalypse Now; Bram Stoker's Dracula; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein--and some real stinkers--Finian's Rainbow; Jack; Youth Without Youth; Twixt. His films have had 55 Oscar nominations and 14 wins; he has personally won five for Patton (Best Original Screenplay); The Godfather (Best Adapted Screenplay); and The Godfather Part II (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay).
April 8
  • J. Smeaton Chase (1864-1923) was an English-born American author, traveler, and photographer. Born in London, he moved to Southern California in 1890, where among other jobs he worked as a tutor to the children of a wealthy rancher in the San Gabriel Valley. He traveled on horseback from Los Angeles to San Diego in 1910; in 1911 he rode from Mexico to Oregon, a journey chronicled in his California Coast Trails. Later came the publication of California Desert Trails, based on two years riding alone in that harsh environment. Another of his books--The Penance of Magdalena, of which I own a first edition--is a charming collection of five tales, each set in one of the southern California missions.
  • Barbara Kingsolver (1955 - ) is an American novelist, essayist, and poet who lived briefly in the Congo in her early childhood, an experience that surely must have contributed to her one of her best-known novels, The Poisonwood Bible, about a missionary family from Georgia who move to a village in the Belgian Congo. She later wrote Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a non-fiction book about her family's attempts to eat locally. In all she seems to have written nine novels or collections of short fiction; five non-fiction books; two books of poetry; and numerous articles and essays, including many on science.
April 9
  • Elias Lonnrot (1802-1884) was a Finnish folklorist. As a young country doctor, he began collecting folk tales from his rural patients; eventually, with the support from the newly-formed Finnish Literature Society, he was able to take leaves of absence for collecting, and began to publish books. For these efforts he was awarded the Chair of Finnish Literature at the University of Helsinki. His best-known creation is the Kalevala, the Finnish "national epic," which is actually a literary composition of short ballads and lyric poems strung together into a cohesive work. He also published Kanteletar, a collection of Finnish folk poetry, and compiled the first Finnish-Swedish dictionary.
  • Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a French poet, essayist, and art critic. Though his poems are Romantic in some respects, unlike those flights of fancy they are based on observations of real life. His most famous work was a book of lyric poetry entitled Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), which expresses the changing concepts of beauty as France industrialized during the mid-19th century. He seems to have coined the term modernity to describe the fleeting experience of life in the city, and the urgency for artists to capture that experience. His work influenced later French poets like Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, among many others.
April 10
  • William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator, and philosopher, and considered by some to be one of the greatest critics and essayists in the history of the English language, along with the likes of Samuel Johnson and George Orwell. He was certainly the finest art critic of his age. Sadly, despite all this, his work is currently little read and mostly out of print. He was friends with some of the most important writers of the 19th-century, including Charles and Mary Lamb, Stendhal, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. Among his notable works are Characters of Shakespear's Plays, the first book to cover all of Shakespeare's plays; Table-Talk, a collection of essays on art, literature and philosophy; and The Spirit of the Age, a collection of character sketches of 25 influential men of his day.
  • Lew Wallace (1827-1905) was an American lawyer and a Union general in the American Civil War. (He also served on the military commission for the trials of the Lincoln assassination conspirators.) He later served as governor of the New Mexico Territory, during which time he completed his most famous work (while living at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe), Ben-Hur, subtitled A Tale of the Christ. It has been called "the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century," and is known to a certain generation of moviegoers for the epic 1959 film version, which won a record 11 Academy Awards in 1960. Published in 1880, it was the first book to dislodge Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin in sales, and was itself not bumped from the top of the US all-time bestseller list until 1936 with the publication of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. (It regained the top spot after the movie was released.) The protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, was a Jewish prince from Jerusalem enslaved by the Romans at the beginning of the first century CE. Parallel to his narrative is that of Jesus, from the same region and around the same age. The two young men's lives intersect throughout the story, and Judah converts to Christianity late in the book.
  • Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) was a Hungarian-born American politician and newspaper publisher in St. Louis and New York, and a major competitor to William Randolph Hearst. The two tried to one-up each other by engaging in yellow journalism, using sensationalism, sex, crime and graphic horrors, creating the press's increasing dependence on advertising revenue instead of only cover price or subsidies from political parties. It paid, because he earned enough to leave behind the legacy of the Pulitzer Prizes, resulting from his endowment to Columbia University. The prizes are given annually to recognize and reward excellence in American journalism, photography, literature, history, poetry, music, and drama; his bequest also funded the establishment of the Columbia School of Journalism.
  • George William Russell (1867-1935) was an Irish writer, editor, critic, poet, painter and Irish nationalist, who sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Æ (sometimes written AE or A.E.). He was a central figure in Dublin's theosophy circle for many years, and is remembered for his writings on mysticism. He knew W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Frank O'Connor, and P. L. Travers (who wrote Mary Poppins), among many others. (A character in Joyce's Ulysses borrows money from a character based on Russell and comments, "A.E.I.O.U.") He is mainly remembered today for his publishing and mentoring of other writers; his works are seldom read.
  • Paul Theroux (1941 - ) is an American novelist and travel writer. His novel The Mosquito Coast was adapted into a 1986 movie and a 2021 television series. Many know him better for his travel books, many based on railway journeys, including The Great Railway Bazaar (Great Britain to Japan and back), The Old Patagonian Express (Boston to Argentina), Riding the Iron Rooster (China), Dark Star Safari (Cairo to Cape Town by public transport), The Kingdom by the Sea (a walking tour of the U.K.), The Happy Isles of Oceania (kayaking in the South Pacific), and Deep South (four road trips in the southern U.S.)
  • Anne Lamott (1954 - ) is an American novelist, non-fiction writer, progressive political activist, public speaker, and writing teacher. Based in Marin County, California, she writes mainly of her own life with open treatment of subjects such as alcoholism, single-motherhood, depression, and Christianity. She is also active on Facebook, where she publishes her thoughts on what's happening in her world and ours.
April 11
  • Leo Rosten (1908-1997) was an American humorist once called "the Jewish James Thurber." He was well-known for New Yorker short stories about his character "Hyman Kaplan," but I treasure him for his humorous dictionary, The Joys of Yiddish, containing a lexicon of common words and phrases of "Yinglish"--Yiddish English--origin. In virtually every case his explanations were followed by a joke. A well-known example: chutzpah is "that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan." Brilliant.
  • Anton Szandor LaVey (born Howard Stanton Levey, 1930-1997) was an American author who founded the Church of Satan and the religion of Satanism, on which he wrote several books. True believers there were, but most people would agree with the assessment that he was a "born showman": his legend starts with the story that he left school at 16 to work in the circus, a "fact" for which there is not a shred of evidence. Like L. Ron Hubbard, he is known to have associated with a circle of sci-fi/fantasy writers (in his case associated with Weird Tales magazine) before coming out as a sort of cult leader. His net worth has been estimated as high as 6 million dollars.
  • Mark Strand (1934-2014) was a Canadian-born American poet, essayist, and academic. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1999 for Blizzard of One, and was Poet Laureate of the United States in 1990.
  • Thomas Harris (1940 - ) is an American writer best known as the creator of the character, Hannibal Lecter. Most of his works have been adapted into films and television, the most notable being The Silence of the Lambs, which became only the third film in Academy Awards history to sweep the Oscars in five major categories (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay); the previous two were It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Harris wrote two non-Lecter books, one before the series of four (Black Sunday), and one after (Cari Mora, the only one of Harris's six books not to be adapted to film or television).
April 12
  • Francisco Garces (1738-1781) was a pioneering Spanish Franciscan missionary and explorer of northern Mexico, the American southwest, and both Californias. Born in Aragon in north-central Spain, he was ordained a priest in 1763. He was among the Franciscans who replaced the Jesuits when the King of Spain expelled them from his domains, and was assigned to the renowned Mission San Xavier del Bac now near Tucson, Arizona. (He was in the group of Franciscans that took charge of present-day Sonora, Mexico and Arizona, USA. Other Franciscans, under the doughty Junípero Serra, took Baja California and expanded into what is now the state of California, USA.) Not resting on his laurels, Garcés conducted extensive explorations in the Sonoran, Colorado, and Mojave Deserts, along the Gila River, and the Colorado River from the Gulf of California and Lower Colorado River Valley to the Grand Canyon, recording encounters with the Native American tribes along the way. Twice he traveled with the conquistador Juan Bautista de Anza, and also entered the San Joaquin Valley in 1776. With Juan Díaz he established two missions on the lower Colorado River near modern Yuma; in July 1781, he and his fellow friars were killed in a violent native uprising. He left behind two diaries (available online in English and Spanish), one covering the first de Anza expedition (January-July, 1774) and the other covering the second (October-December, 1776).
  • Beverly Cleary (1916-2021) was an American author of children's and young adult literature. Over 91 million copies of her books have been sold worldwide since her first in 1950. She is known for such characters as Ramona and Beezus Quimby, Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy, and Ralph S. Mouse. Most of her books are set in Portland, Oregon, where she was raised; a public school there has been named after her, and several statues of her characters have been erected in a Portland park. She won numerous awards, including the 1981 National Book Award for Ramona and Her Mother and the 1984 Newbery Medal for Dear Mr. Henshaw.
April 13
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) statesman, lawyer, architect, philosopher, and U.S. Founding Father who was the new nation's first secretary of state (under George Washington), second vice president (under John Adams) and third president. His resume was such that President John F. Kennedy in 1962 told a group of Nobel Prize Winners at a White House dinner: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet." His reputation has been tarnished by the keeping of over 600 slaves on his plantation, Monticello, but at least he took one step toward eventual emancipation by signing the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807. Nevertheless, he fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings, a mixed-race enslaved woman who was his late wife's half-sister. He was a man of many accomplishments: the principal author of the Declaration of Independence; president of the American Philosophical Society; knew several languages; founded the University of Virginia; made the Louisiana Purchase (doubling the nation's size) and sending out the Lewis and Clark's "Corps of Discovery" to obtain scientific, geographic, and ethnological knowledge. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of U.S. independence, and the same day as his long-time friend (and sometime political rival) John Adams. Historians generally rank Thomas Jefferson as one of the greatest presidents in American history.
  • Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was an Irish novelist, short story writer, translator, playwright, and poet, perhaps best known for his play Waiting for Godot, which has been called the "most significant English language play of the 20th century" (though it was written in French and translated by Beckett himself). He lived in Paris most of his adult life, writing in both French and English. In the modernist style, his work tends to be bleak, minimalist, and tinged with black comedy; he has been called a proponent of the "Theatre of the Absurd." He received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature. Other famous works include the novels Murphy, Watt, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and How It Is; and plays Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, and Happy Days.
  • Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was an American short story writer and novelist whose works were set in the American South. Her novel The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973; several of her short stories won the O. Henry Award.
  • Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet; playwright; and translator of Beowulf. he has been called "the most important Irish poet since Yeats" and "the greatest poet of our age." His poetry includes Opened Ground: Selected Poems: 1966-1996 and Death of a Naturalist (1966); he received the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. He lived part-time in the United States from 1981 to 2006; he was a professor at Harvard from 1981 to 1997, and its Poet in Residence from 1988 to 2006. He also taught at Oxford (1989-1994), and won numerous awards.
April 14
  • Averroes (1126-1198) was an Andalusian polymath. Here are two things the average person seldom thinks about:
    (1) While Europe experienced its "Dark Ages"--a time of comparatively little advancement in knowledge--the intellectual life in the Islamic world started thriving. Much of our knowledge of the ancients comes through Arabic. And
    (2) Those Muslims were not only in the Middle East and Africa; they were also in Spain and Turkey.
    "Averroes" is the name we use for one Ibn Rushd, a Muslim jurist who wrote about philosophy, theology, medicine, astronomy, physics, psychology, mathematics, Islamic law, and linguistics. He wrote more than 100 books and treatises, including commentaries on Aristotle which helped reawaken western European interest in that philosopher and other Greek thinkers.
  • Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) was a Dutch mathematician, astronomer, and physicist who made groundbreaking contributions in mechanics and optics (where, he is best known for his wave theory of light; the Treatise on Light is one of his major works). He has been called the first theoretical physicist and is one of the founders of modern mathematical physics. He improved the design of telescopes and discovered Saturn's largest moon, Titan (the first to be discovered). He also invented the pendulum clock, a breakthrough in timekeeping and the most accurate way of keeping time for almost 300 years.
April 16
  • Anatole France (born François-Anatole Thibault, 1844-1924) was a French poet, journalist, and novelist; he had several best-sellers, and was considered the "ideal French man of letters" in his day--indeed, the citation for his 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature mentioned that he had "a true Gallic temperament." He grew up in his father's bookstore, which specialized in the French Revolution. His many novels include Thaïs, about a legendary 4th-century female Egyptian saint; At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, about the tribulations of a young man at the beginning of the 18th century; Penguin Island, a satirical fictional history, in which a nearly-blind missionary baptizes a bunch of birds and the Lord, to fix the problem, turns the birds into humans (they establish Penguinia, a country with a history which mirrors that of France); The Gods Are Athirst, about the rise and fall of a painter-turned-jurist in the dark years of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution; and The Revolt of the Angels, about the well-known story of the war in heaven between the angels led by the Archangel Michael and those led by Satan. He also wrote poetry, memoirs, plays, and literary and social criticism.
  • John Millington Synge (1871-1909) was an Irish playwright, poet, prose writer, travel writer, and folklorist, best known for his play The Playboy of the Western World. It is set in a public house in County Mayo (on the west coast of Ireland) during the early 1900s, and tells the story of a young man running away from his farm, claiming he killed his father. With W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, Synge was a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He left relatively few works, but they were of high cultural significance, including In the Shadow of the Glen, Riders to the Sea, The Well of the Saints, and The Tinker's Wedding. He died of Hodgkin's-related cancer at age 37.
  • Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), the beloved "Little Tramp" (who became a worldwide icon) was in fact an English filmmaker. Growing up in London, he rose from poverty in a single-parent home to begin performing at an early age. He was scouted from a touring troupe on an American tour at age 19 and went to work for Keystone Studios; before age 30, he was one of the world's best-known figures. He was a co-founder of the distribution company United Artists, and made his first feature, The Kid, in 1921. Subsequent memorable work includes The Gold Rush; City Lights; Modern Times; and The Great Dictator, which satirized Adolf Hitler. With scandals in his personal life and accusations of communism, Chaplin felt it prudent to leave the U.S. and move to Switzerland; in his later films he gave up his character of the Tramp. His career of over 75 years was recognized with an Honorary Academy Award in 1972.
  • Gertrude Chandler Warner (1890-1979) was an American author of children's books, especially The Boxcar Children and its 18 sequels. She grew up across from the railroad station in Putnam, CT, and dreamed of being an author from the age of five. Frequently ill, she left high school in her sophomore year, and finished her secondary education with a tutor. Nevertheless, she became a teacher (during a teacher shortage because of World War I) and taught grade school in Putnam from 1918 to 1950. (Over the years she completed education courses at Yale University summer school.) She never married living in her parents' home for almost forty years and then moving to her grandmother's house. In her later years she shared a house with her companion, a retired nurse. She is buried in Putnam.
April 17
  • Isak Dinesen (1885-1962) was a Danish author who wrote novels, poems, and short stories, and was known for Out of Africa; Seven Gothic Tales; and "Babette's Feast." She was a woman of many names: born Karen Dinesen, "Isak" is a pen name, as was Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Andrézel. She married Baron Bror Fredrik von Blixen-Finecke, and ended up with the weighty name Baroness Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke. "Isak Dinesen" will do nicely. Out of Africa, which became a film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford that won Best Picture and Best Director (Sydney Pollack) Oscars, was based on her life while living in Kenya (1914-1931); the film version of her story "Babette's Feast" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
  • Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) was an American playwright and novelist. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: one for fiction for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1928) and two for Drama, for Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). Bridge tells of several people who die in the collapse of an Inca rope bridge in Peru, written from the point of view of a friar who witnesses the accident. Our Town is "metatheatrical"; a stage manager brings speakers and actors into the theater to tell stories of the people of the town of Grover's Corners between 1901 and 1913. Playwright Edward Albee (no slouch himself) called it "the greatest American play ever written." And Skin is a three-part allegory about the life of humankind as epitomized by the Antrobus (anthropos--get it?) family. Wilder was friends with writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Gertrude Stein.
April 18
  • Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) was an English playwright and poet whose life overlapped that of Shakespeare. Some scholars believe that he collaborated with The Bard on All's Well That Ends Well and Timon of Athens; another play, A Yorkshire Tragedy, was long attributed to Shakespeare, but modern critics have examined the style and determined it to be Middleton's. With John Fletcher and Ben Jonson, Middleton was one of the most successful playwrights of the Jacobean period (the reign of King James, successor to Queen Elizabeth). Proficient at writing both comedy and tragedy, he also wrote a large number of masques and pageants (elaborate productions that included pantomime and dancing, and later dialogue and song, given by amateur and professional actors). His plays are still staged, and the number of productions is increasing. T. S. Eliot thought him second only to Shakespeare.
  • Joy Davidman (1915-1960) was an American poet and writer who might not have moved the needle except for her second husband: she married C. S. Lewis in his late fifties (after a life of bachelorhood). She had become his intellectual companion and confidant; at first the marriage was a civil arrangement for the sake of her visa status, but, after she was diagnosed with incurable cancer, he realized he had fallen in love with her. (She had loved him all along.) Four years after their marriage, she was dead; he lived three more years, raising Davidman's sons in the interim. Contrary to assumptions, Lewis's book Surprised by Joy is not at all about Davidman: it is an autobiographical work ending two decades before they met. Instead, try A Grief Observed, so raw an account of his bereavement at her death (and how it shook his faith) that at first he published it under a pseudonym to keep readers from associating the book with him. She is mainly known today for works associated with Lewis, and one book, on the Ten Commandments (Davidman was a Jewish convert to Christianity).
April 19
  • Richard Hughes (1900-1976) was a British writer of poems, short stories, novels and plays. Of his four novels, the most famous is The Innocent Voyage, which he renamed A High Wind in Jamaica soon after its publication. It's set in the 19th century, when the five Bas-Thornton children are being sent from Jamaica back to England, along with two other Jamaican creole children. Their ship is attacked by pirates, and the children end up living quite unconcerned on the pirates' ship. As things progress, one teen girl is subjected to sexual abuse, another commits a murder, and in all the children end up showing moral values equal to or worse than those of the pirates. Needless to say, readers of the day (the book was published in 1929) had a hard time with this. Others, of course, found in it a refreshing departure from the stuffy Victorian romances of childhood, and the book is seen as a precursor to Lord of the Flies. As for Hughes, he was a friend of Robert Graves and Dylan Thomas, among others, and wrote numerous other works.
  • José Echegaray (1832-1916) was one of the leading Spanish dramatists of the end of the 19th century, and received the 1904 Nobel Prize for Literature (shared with the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral) for reviving "the great traditions of the Spanish drama." After a career as a professor of mathematics and engineering, and another as a government minister (starting after the revolution of 1868 overthrew the monarchy, and ending when the First Spanish Republic ended in 1874), he indulged in what had always been the love of his life: drama. It is said that he replicated the achievements of his predecessors of the Spanish Golden Age, such as Lope de Vega. One of his greatest works, El Gran Galeoto, is based on the story of Paolo and Francesca in Dante's Divine Comedy, itself derived from the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Echegaray was a prolific author; one catalog lists nearly 80 plays written from 1874, and nearly 30 works of non-fiction.
April 20
  • Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) Austrian-German dictator whose brutality made his name synonymous with "monster." He wouldn't be in this list of "Great Minds" except, while imprisoned for high treason following a failed coup, he began writing his autobiography, Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), which describes how he became anti-Semitic and what his plans were for Germany's future. Examination of the work gives insight into the mind of a maniac. Published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926, it became a bestseller in Germany after his rise to power in 1933. The state government of Bavaria held the copyright after Hitler's death, and refused to allow it to be copied or printed in Germany. When the copyright expired in 2016, the book was republished in Germany for the first time since 1945, prompting the expected controversy and the creation of heavily-annotated editions.
  • Joan Miró (1893-1983) was a Spanish painter and sculptor born in Barcelona, where a museum has been dedicated to his work. He earned international acclaim for his Surrealistic work with a personal style. Its childlike nature reflects his interest in the human unconscious or subconscious mind. An iconoclast, he stated his contempt for conventional painting methods as a way of supporting bourgeois society, and declared an "assassination of painting" in favor of upsetting established paintings' visual elements.
  • Sebastian Faulks (1953 - ) is a British novelist and journalist. He is best known for his historical novels set in France: The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Birdsong, and Charlotte Gray. He has also made a good living piggy-backing on dead British authors, including writing a James Bond continuation novella ,and a continuation of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves series. He has written around 15 novels or novellas, and a handful of works of non-fiction.
April 21
  • Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) English novelist, and the eldest of the four Bronte siblings: brother Patrick Branwell, a painter, who died at 31; Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, who died at 30; and Anne, who wrote a couple of lesser-known works, and who died at 29. Charlotte herself only made it to 38. Jane Eyre is by far her best-known work, followed by Shirley, Villette, The Professor, and a fragment called Emma. She also published poems under the pen-name Currer Bell (note the initials) along with two other poets (Ellis and Acton Bell); can you guess who they were? Jane Eyre (also originally by "Currer Bell") is, of course, the story of the heroine's growth to adulthood and her love for Mr. Rochester, the brooding master of Thornfield Hall.
  • John Muir (1838-1914) was a Scottish-born Californian conservationist who was called "John of the Mountains" and "Father of the National Parks" for his influence on the wilderness preservation policies of the U.S. He was a self-taught botanist, zoologist, glaciologist, naturalist, author, and environmental philosopher. According to one article, "at least one high school, 21 elementary schools, six middle schools, and one college" have been "named after him, as well as a glacier, a mountain, a woods, a cabin, an inlet, a highway, a library, a motel, a medical center, a tea room and a minor planet." He helped preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, and co-founded The Sierra Club, a prominent American conservation organization. His letters, essays, and books have been read by millions. Alas, in recent years his racism toward Native Americans and Blacks has emerged, and the Sierra Club has found itself apologizing for his views and taking steps to correct the harm done by this part of his legacy. Notable books include The Mountains of California; Our National Parks; My First Summer in the Sierra; and The Yosemite.
  • John C. Van Dyke (1856-1932) American art historian and critic who wrote not only on art, but--more to my liking--on his time in the West in The Desert (with photos by J. Smeaton Chase), through which Americans "'discovered' the Southwest, its Indians, strange plants, and exotic animals. Discovered, too, the first and still the best book to praise the arid lands. After nearly a century Van Dyke remains the grandfather of almost all American desert writers...." according to a blurb on his Autobiography.
  • Max Weber (1864-1920) German sociologist and philosopher regarded as among the most important theorists of the development of modern Western society. He is recognized as one of the fathers of sociology along with Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Émile Durkheim. Surprisingly, he also wrote considerably on the importance (mostly negative) of organized religion on society. In Weber's view (see, for instance, The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism and The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism), Hinduism in India and Confucianism in China were barriers for capitalism, whereas another work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, asserts that the Christian ethos was a boon for capitalism.
April 22
  • Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was an English novelist and dramatist most famous for his comic novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, in which the title character romps through 18 books in the 18th century. It is one of the earliest proper English novels, and was highly praised by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who placed the perfection of its plot up there with Oedipus Rex by Sophocles and  Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist, which I'm sure you've all read. Fielding also, interestingly, was a magistrate who founded London's first full-time police force.
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosophical heavyweight, much discussed and unread by most. Just the titles of his works--Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, The Metaphysics of Morals, Critique of Judgment--make me stifle a yawn, and I was a philosophy major. Perhaps his greatest impact was in systematizing the philosophical knowledge of his day. He argued that while "things-in-themselves" exist and contribute to our experience of the world, they are actually unknowable to us as they are. Or something.
  • Vladimir Lenin (born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, 1870-1924) was a Russian revolutionary and political theorist who has a lot to answer for. The original Bolshevik, he founded Soviet Russia in 1917 and the Soviet Union in 1922. Under his leadership, Russia, and later the Soviet Union, became a one-party socialist state governed by the Communist Party. Though a Marxist, he developed a subset of Marxism called Leninism. He is considered one of the most influential figures of the 20th century: viewed by his supporters as a champion of socialism and the working class, he has also been accused of establishing a totalitarian dictatorship which oversaw mass killings and political repression. His works include The  State and Revolution and Imperialism.
  • Otto Rank (1884-1939) was an Austrian psychoanalyst, writer, and teacher; never anyone's household name, he influenced my thinking by laying much of the groundwork for the ideas of Joseph Campbell in his The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. (Other spicy titles include The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend and The Trauma of Birth.) He is said to have influenced such seemingly-disparate thinkers and creators as Matthew Fox, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Nella Larsen, Salvador Dalí, Martha Graham, and Samuel Beckett.
  • Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was a Russian-American novelist who tried to give dirty old men a good name with his Lolita, in which the peculiarly-named Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze (whom he calls "Lolita"), and sexually molests her after he becomes her stepfather. It doesn't get better from there. Fortunately Humbert (or Mr. Humbert?) loses everything, but "Dolly's" life is wrecked, too. Nabokov also wrote other novels, including Pale Fire, cast in the form of a lengthy poem with commentary; and a memoir, Speak, Memory.
  • Louise Glück (1943 - ) is an American poet who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1993) for The Wild Iris, which features garden flowers in conversation with a gardener and a deity about the nature of life. She was the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2003-2004. Among her several other works is The Triumph of Achilles, exploring modern takes on themes from classical antiquity and myth.
April 23
  • J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) was an English painter known for the expressive use of light and color in his paintings, as well as his imaginative landscapes. He produced over 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolors, and 30,000 works on paper. Today he is regarded as having elevated landscape painting to equal the eminence of painting historical subjects. He was a very private person who never married, but fathered two daughters by his housekeeper. In his final years he lived in squalor and poor health. His works include Dido building Carthage; The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus; and Sunrise with Sea Monsters (a favorite, which--though incomplete--epitomizes his style).
  • Wei Yuan (1794-1856) was a late-Qing Chinese scholar who worked in government. He was deeply concerned with the crisis facing China in the early 19th century as it faced threats from the Western powers. He was a Qing loyalist but sketched a number of proposals for the improvement of the empire's administration. And he wrote a number of works of nearly-contemporary history, including in 1844 the important Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms, containing Western material collected by Lin Zexu during and after the First Opium War (1839-1842).
  • Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) was an Italian composer, and a rival of Puccini. Though he wrote over 20 operatic works, it is mainly for his Pagliacci--the tale of a "clown" who murders his wife and her lover on stage during a performance--that he is remembered. His other works are seldom performed.
  • Max Planck (1858-1947) was a German physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918 as the originator of quantum theory (as if I knew what I were talking about). He made many other substantial contributions to theoretical physics as well, none of which I also understand. And he wrote Eight Lectures on Theoretical Physics; Where Is Science Going?; a Scientific Autobiography and other papers; and of course The Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory, which I also don't get.
  • Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian and one of the major composers of the 20th century, but was beloved by me for his Peter and the Wolf. The "March" from The Love for Three Oranges is part of the Pops repertoire, as are several of his other pieces, including some from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. He completed seven operas, seven symphonies, eight ballets, five piano concertos, two violin concertos, a cello concerto, a symphony-concerto for cello and orchestra, and nine piano sonatas.
April 24
  • Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) was an English novelist probably best known today for the six novels of the series The Chronicles of Barsetshire, which included Barchester Towers. He wrote another series of six, a series of five, and 30 stand alone novels; over 40 short stories; 17 works of non-fiction; at least 20 articles; two plays; and several volumes of collected letters. This raises the question: how did he become "one of the most prolific writers of all time" while fulfilling his duties as a postal clerk and inspector? The answer was: a new-found discipline (previously he had been known as unpunctual and insubordinate) that pushed him to write on the trains during his inspection journeys. (There's a lesson in this for you, Jim Bucket!)
  • Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) was an American poet, novelist, and literary critic, and a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry, having received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for All the King's Men, about a character based on the populist one-time Louisiana governor Huey P. Long Jr. (a 1949 film version of the book won the Academy Award for Best Picture), and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 (Promises: Poems 1954-1956) and 1979 (Now and Then). He was also the U.S. Poet Laureate 1944-1945. Though associated with hard-core Southern writers, Warren became an advocate for civil rights; one of his more interesting works was Who Speaks for the Negro?, a 1965 book of interviews with leaders like Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Stokely Carmichael.
April 25
  • Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) was an English poet, short story writer, and novelist. His Collected Stories for Children includes 17 fantasy stories or original fairy tales, which was the first collection to win the annual Carnegie Medal for the year's best children's book; his poem "The Listeners" may or may not be a ghost story; and his actual ghost and horror stories were favorites of H. P. Lovecraft. A surrealistic novel, Memoirs of a Midget, also won prizes; it's about the life of a young woman with a small body but a large intellect and spirit.
  • Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) was an American jazz singer who got saddled with silly nicknames like "the First Lady of Song", "Queen of Jazz", and "Lady Ella." These don't come close to expressing the purity of her voice or her masterful phrasing, timing, and intonation. Her ability to improvise (including "scat singing") put her in a class by herself. Her rendition of the nursery rhyme "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" with the Chick Webb orchestra put her on the map; her association with manager Norman Granz led to the formation of Verve Records to produce her music. She did movies and TV guest spots, and had long, fruitful collaborations with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and The Ink Spots among others. She gave her last performance at age 76 and died three years later in poor health, having received fourteen Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It's impossible to pick out single performances, but try "Mr. Paganini," "How High the Moon," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" for starters.
  • Ted Kooser (1939 - ) is an American poet known for the conversational style of his poetry. He decided as a teenager that he was going to be a famous poet for three reasons: glory, immortality, and to leave the bohemian lifestyle behind; ironic, then, that he retired as vice president of an insurance company after 35 years. He wrote for an hour and a half before work every morning, publishing seven books of poetry during his working life; he also taught in the English department of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His Delights and Shadows won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; about that time he was Poet Laureate of the USA (2004-2006).
April 26
  • Marcus Aurelius (121-180) was a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, the closest thing we'll ever have to a "philosopher king." His Meditations are worth reading over and over, an epitome of Stoic thought--interestingly, much of it written in camps while on military campaigns.
  • William Shakespeare (1564-1616) pre-eminent English playwright and poet. He was baptized on this day, and may have been born three days earlier, according to some calculations. Modern scholarship suggests that, including collaborations, he is responsible for all or part of 39 plays, in addition to his 154 sonnets, four narrative poems, and a few other verses. Outstanding among his plays (there are so many!) are The Tempest; Hamlet; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; A Midsummer Night's Dream; and more. The long poems are Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, A Lover's Complaint, and--I'm not kidding--The Phoenix and the Turtle. Several of the Sonnets stand out, notably
      • #18 "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
      • #29 "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes"
      • #116 "Let me not to the marriage of true minds" and 
      • #130 "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"
    • John James Audubon (1785-1851) American naturalist and painter. Few illustrators have made as big a splash in the borderlands between art and science as did this Haitian-born American ornithologist. His major work, The Birds of America (1827-1839), depicted his subjects in their natural habitats, and is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon is also known for identifying 25 new species. The book consists of 435 engraved and hand-painted plates measuring 39 by 26 inches--that's over a yard tall! Originally issued as separate plates, it was bound in different ways by different subscribers. It is estimated that not more than 200 complete sets were ever compiled; only 120 copies are known to still exist. One sold for approximately $11.5 million in 2010. The National Audubon Society was started and named for John James Audubon a half-century after his death. It is the oldest conservation organization in the world, educating the public through its 500 chapters.
    • Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) was a French artist regarded as the leader of the French Romantic school. Inspired by Rubens and painters of the Venetian Renaissance, he emphasized color and movement rather than clarity and form. He was also inspired by the literary works of Lord Byron. In addition to such paintings as Massacre at Chios, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, and Liberty Leading the People, he was also a fine lithographer who illustrated various works of Shakespeare, Walter Scott, and Goethe.
    • Artemus Ward (1834-1867) was an American humorist and, like Mark Twain before him, was actually a pseudonym, in this case for Charles Farrar Browne. But Browne (né Brown) took it further than Sam Clemens ever did: he created the Ward character (an illiterate rube with "Yankee common sense") in print and on stage, making him what some considered to be America's first "stand-up comedian." Like Clemens, he started out in the newspaper racket (as a compositor) and began contributing short pieces to the papers he worked for. He was a favorite of Lincoln, and friends with Twain, and actually gave him a leg up with the east coast publishing establishment. Here are a few of his zingers:
      • I am not a politician, and my other habits are good, also.
      • I can't sing. As a singist I am not a success. I am saddest when I sing. So are those who hear me. They are sadder even than I am.
      • Did you ever have the measels, and if so, how many?
      • The Puritans nobly fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedim, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but could prevent everybody else from enjoyin' his.
      • Why is this thus? What is the reason of this thusness?
      • Let us all be happy and live within our means, even if we have to borrer money to do it with.
    • Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an Austrian-British philosopher who write Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a title which by itself tells us what we're in for. (This slim volume of 75 pages or so was the only book published in his lifetime. The rest were posthumous, including especially the 1953 book Philosophical Investigations.) He worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. He is considered by some (but not by the plain folk like you and me)  to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Wittgenstein is said to have believed that "His ideas were generally misunderstood and distorted even by those who professed to be his disciples," and despaired of being any better understood in the future. I'll say.
    • A. E. van Vogt (1912-2000) was a Canadian-born author of science fiction in the mid-twentieth century, science fiction's so-called Golden Age. He is best-known for his novel Slan, and for short stories like "The Silkie," "The Weapon Shop," and "Black Destroyer." His bizarre narrative style influenced later science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick.
    • Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) was an American novelist and short story writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1967) for his novel The Fixer, about anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire. Filmgoers may remember him for the Oscar-nominated baseball film (based on his novel), The Natural, which starred Robert Redford. Born in Brooklyn of Russian Jewish immigrants, he took a master's degree from Columbia before becoming a writing instructor (he wasn't allowed to teach literature because he didn't have a PhD.) His writing gives an honest picture of the difficulties of immigrants to America, and their hopes of overcoming poverty.
    • Natasha Trethewey (1966 - ) is an American poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2006) for her collection Native Guard; Bellocq's Ophelia (2002) is a collection of poems in the form of an epistolary novella, telling the fictional story of a mixed-race prostitute photographed by E. J. Bellocq in early 20th-century New Orleans. She was appointed Poet Laureate of the US (2012-2014), and has had a distinguished academic career.
    April 27
    • Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was an English historian whose modern reputation rests almost solely on his monumental six-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The work exhibited meticulous sourcing and a full frontal criticism of organized religion; it traces Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium in the fifteenth century.
    • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an English writer, founding feminist philosopher, and advocate of women's rights, known for her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be so only because they lack education. She wrote in a number of genres (novels, treatises, a travel narrative, history, a book of etiquette, and a children's book). She died at age 38, 11 days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley, who would become an accomplished writer and author of Frankenstein. A memoir written by Wollstonecraft's husband after her death revealed her illegitimate children, love affairs, and suicide attempts, sullying her reputation to the reading public and preventing the brilliance of her ideas from spreading as far as they might have until her own vindication in the 20th century.
    • Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) was an American painter and inventor of Morse code (dit dot dit), probably the only reason he's commonly mentioned today. He contributed to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system on which that code was used; oddly, until middle-age he was better known as a rather conventional painter, mostly of patriotic subjects (including former President John Adams). He was also something of a jerk, a leader in the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration movement of the mid-19th century. He tried to shut down Catholic institutions, including schools, and ran for mayor of New York on an anti-immigration platform. (He lost.) He believed that the Austrian government (among others) was subsidizing Catholic immigration to the U.S. in order to gain control of the country. And he was a defender of slavery, considering it to be sanctioned by God. Oh, well. ..-. / -.-- --- ..- / -- .-. / -- --- .-. ... .
    • August Wilson (1945-2005) was an American playwright best known for a series of ten plays, collectively called The Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicle the experiences of the African-American community in the 20th century. Two of the ten--Fences (1985) and The Piano Lesson (1990)--won Pulitzers for Best Drama. (Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom have been adapted to film by Denzel Washington, who has vowed to bring the remaining eight to the big screen.) Fences won a Tony as well, for which eight of the other plays (all but Jitney, the first) were also nominated. Because each play is set in a different decade of the 20th century, the whole thing is also called the "Century Cycle." The two that I have seen (the two on film) are masterful.
    April 28
    • (Nelle) Harper Lee (1926-2016) was an American novelist. When her first (and almost only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960 (and won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), she was not an unknown in the publishing world. She was a lifelong friend of Truman Capote ("Dill" in TKAM was based on him). His first novel was published in 1948, and Breakfast at Tiffany's ten years later; she lived near him in Manhattan, and accompanied him to Kansas to do the research on In Cold Blood. At Christmas in 1956, friends gave her a gift of a year's wages with a note: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas." What she wrote was a mangled manuscript called Go Set a Watchman. With the help of seasoned editor Tay Hohoff at Lippincott, it became the polished To Kill a Mockingbird, a book which she said was not a "coming of age" story but a look at the irrational prejudices of adults as seen through the eyes of children. She was never to publish another novel until in 2015, HarperCollins announced it would publish Go Set a Watchman, first described as a "sequel" to TKAM, but later admitted to be an early draft. Allegations that unscrupulous background players (a lawyer, an agent, etc.) coerced Lee into doing what she said she never would--publish another novel--were never proven, though it is suspicious that this all happened just two and a half months after her sister--a lawyer who had been her protector--passed away. (I refuse to read it, not least because it portrays my one of my fictional heroes, Atticus Finch, as something of a racist.)
    • Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) was an English author of fantasy novels with a humorous tilt; he is best known for his Discworld series of 41 novels. After the first novel in the series (1983), he wrote an average of two books a year. The final novel in the series was published five months after his death. (The series is named for its planet, which is a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle. What goes all the way down?) He also wrote non-Discworld novels, including Good Omens in collaboration with Neil Gaiman. With more than 85 million books sold worldwide in 37 languages, he was the UK's best-selling author of the 1990s. He announced in 2007 that he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and later made a substantial public donation to the Alzheimer's Research Trust. He also filmed a television program about his experiences with the disease before he died at age 66.
    April 29
    • Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) was a French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and philosopher of science called "The Last Universalist" of mathematics, having mastered all its branches (a task that would become impossible soon after his lifetime). He made many original, fundamental contributions to pure and applied mathematics, mathematical physics, and celestial mechanics. His work laid the foundations of modern chaos theory, and he made discoveries that contributed to the formulation of the theory of special relativity. A "group" (don't ask me) used in physics and mathematics was named after him, and in the early 20th century he formulated the "Poincaré conjecture," one of the famous unsolved problems in mathematics--until it was solved in 2002-2003. His popular written works include Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, and Science and Method--all taken from lectures he gave before the Société de Psychologie in Paris--and an article, "The Future of Mathematics."
    • (Edward Kennedy) "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) was an American jazz composer and performer who fronted his own jazz orchestra for half a century. Some of jazz's biggest names were associated with his work, including singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, saxophonist Johnny Hodges, composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and many more. He performed on radio, in film ,and on TV, touring Europe and crossing color lines. His compositions (too many to number) include "Take the "A" Train"; "In a Sentimental Mood"; "Mood Indigo"; "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"; "Cocktails for Two"; "Black and Tan Fantasy"; " Solitude"; and many more. Nearly 80 of his performances hit the charts, and he earned 14 Grammy awards between 1959 and 2000 (three of them posthumous) out of a total 24 nominations. One of these was a Lifetime Achievement Award, and nine of his recordings (seven singles and two albums) are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
    April 30
    • Franz Lehar (1870-1948) was an Austro-Hungarian composer. Few today know or appreciate Lehar's work, or even the medium for which he is mainly known: operettas, light operas which include (unlike opera) spoken dialogue, songs, and dances. The operetta is lighter, more amusing, and shorter than its grandiose forebear. The most famous of Lehar's 30-plus operettas (he also wrote three operas and five of the wonderfully-named "singspiels," another twist on the operetta) is The Merry Widow, the Disney-esque "Waltz" from which is likely familiar to most of us as background music. The story concerns a rich widow and the efforts of her countrymen to prevent her from marrying a foreigner and taking her money out of the country. Their strategy? Find her a homegrown husband.
    • Annie Dillard (1945 - ) is an American writer whose Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. It is a first-person account of the narrator's explorations near her home with various contemplations on nature and life. It is divided into four sections, each indicating a season of a single year. It is based on Dillard's personal journals; it should come as no surprise to learn that her master's thesis was about Thoreau's Walden. Tinker Creek itself is outside Roanoke, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She taught for over 20 years at Wesleyan University; in addition to Pilgrim she has written poetry, two novels, essays, prose, literary criticism, and one memoir.

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