Sunday, May 1, 2022

Great Minds Born in May

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

May 1

  • Joseph Addison (1672-1719) was an English writer best remembered as writer and publisher (with his old school chum Joseph Addison) for two years of the thrice-weekly journal, The Tatler, and then, for another two years, The Spectator, which aimed "to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality." (The partners also published the less-well-known Guardian for half of 1713.) On his own he also wrote the libretto for an opera, Rosamond (which had a disastrous premiere), and wrote an acclaimed tragedy, Cato. this was followed by a comedic play, The Drummer. He died at age 47.
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a French philosopher and paleontologist (who was on the site at the discovery of the now-lost Peking Man in 1926), and a somewhat--imaginative--Jesuit priest. Several of his works were condemned by the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (successor to the Inquisition) for alleged ambiguities and doctrinal errors. On the other hand, some Catholic figures, including the two most recent popes, have said some positive things about some of his ideas. In a nutshell, he was attempting to meld Darwinism and Catholicism into a theory of an "Omega Point," a semi-mystical end point that draws all things toward it. And so on. I remember little old church ladies going to their weekly "Teilhard meetings" back in the '80s; there is still an active American Teilhard Association. See his books The Phenomenon of Man, The Divine Milieu, and The Future of Man for more.
  • Harry Leon Wilson (1867-1939) was an American novelist who, though not a household name today, brought pleasure to thousands (if not millions) by writing the novels that became four films: Merton of the Movies (filmed in 1924, a film that is now lost; 1932, as Make Me a Star; and 1947, with Red Skelton); and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), with Charles Laughton as an English "gentleman's gentleman" who has been gambled away to a couple of gauche, nouveau riche American millionaires. Merton was also done as a stage and radio play. After working in the publishing industry in New York, Wilson settled permanently at Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, in an artists' community that included Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Ambrose Bierce, Sinclair Lewis, and others. This is where he wrote his most famous novels.
  • Kita Morio (1927-2011) was a Japanese psychiatrist and novelist who worked as a doctor before deciding to become a writer. His works include the novels The House of Nire and Ghosts; a children's book, The Adventures of Kupukupu the Sailor; and the short story "In the Corner of Night and Fog."
May 2
  • Novalis (1772-1801) was a German Romantic poet, author, philosopher, and mystic. Born Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, he became secretly engaged in his early 20s to 15-year-old Sophie von Kuhn. Her sudden death at such a young age may have made him a madman, a genius--or a bit of both. He left the law profession and studied a wide number of disciplines; he also met a number of influential figures of the time. His major poetic and literary works, including collection of six poems Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night), were written when he was a director of salt mines in Saxony and later in Thuringia. Around age 28 he began to show signs of either tuberculosis or cystic fibrosis, and died shortly thereafter. He left the unfinished novels Heinrich von Ofterdingen and The Novices at Sais. His philosophical and scientific ideas became better known only after his notebooks were published after his death.
  • Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) was an English humorist and playwright who wrote the comic travelogue Three Men in a Boat and its sequel Three Men on the Bummel, as well as the books of essays Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. Three Men in a Boat--the story of, well, three men messing about in a boat on the Thames--was a phenomenon, and popularized boating on the Thames such that boat registrations went up 50% the year after it was published. It has never been out of print, and has been adapted into films, TV, radio shows, stage plays, and even a musical. None of his subsequent novels (at least 10), essay collections (at least 15), short stories (at least 11), plays (at least 24), nor his autobiography ever achieved the success of that first silly book.
  • Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) was an Austro-Hungarian philosopher, journalist and author, considered the father of modern political Zionism. He promoted Jewish immigration to Palestine in an effort to form a Jewish state, which became modern Israel in 1948. He is specifically mentioned in the Israeli Declaration of Independence as the visionary who gave a concrete, practicable platform and framework to political Zionism, even though he was not the first to promote Zionism. His ideas were laid out in a small book published in 1896, Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews).
  • Higuchi Ichiyo (born Higuchi Natsuko, 1872-1896) was Japan's first professional female writer of modern literature; she specialized in short stories and poetry, and also wrote hundreds of pages in a diary during the last five years of her life. She died of tuberculosis, the same disease that took her brother and her father, at the age of 24. Her best-known stories, many of which examine the plight of women in difficult situations, including sex-workers in Tokyo's most famous red-light district, include "Takekurabe" ("Comparing Heights"); "Jūsan'ya" ("The Thirteenth Night"); "Ōtsugomori" ("On the Last Day of the Year"); "Nigorie" ("Troubled Waters"); and "Wakare-Michi" ("Separate Ways"). She left 21 short stories, nearly 4,000 poems (which are regarded as being of lesser quality than her prose), numerous essays, and a multivolume diary. In 2004 her image was placed on Japan's 5,000 yen note (today roughly $38).
  • Lorenz Hart (1895-1943) was an American playwright and lyricist. With his partner, the composer Richard Rodgers, he wrote the words for such hit Broadway tunes as "Blue Moon," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "I Could Write a Book," "Isn't It Romantic?," "My Romance," "With a Song in My Heart," and "My Funny Valentine." Born in Harlem, he lived with his mother (who predeceased him by seven months) until his death from alcoholism at age 48.
  • Benjamin Spock (1903-1998) was an American pediatrician and author who "wrote the book" on childrearing. His 1946 book Baby and Child Care--a "Bible" for new parents--is one of the best-selling books of the 20th century, selling 50 million copies by the time of Spock's death in 1998. He told mothers that they "know more than you think you do," and encouraged parents to be more flexible and affectionate with their children and to treat them as individuals--what we now think of as plain ol' common sense. He was criticized for relying too heavily on anecdotal evidence rather than serious academic research. He later became active in the anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, and (oddly) ran for President of the United States in 1972. He was, coincidentally, an Olympic gold medalist in rowing in 1924, while a student at Yale.
May 3
  • Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian Renaissance diplomat, author, philosopher, and historian best known for The Prince, written about 1513 but not published until 1532. He also wrote comedies, songs, and poetry, but in most people's minds he was a ruthless political animal who advocated the unscrupulous acts in The Prince. One of his leadership maxims was, "It is better to be feared than to be loved"; he claimed that throughout the course of history, politics had always been played with deception, treachery, and criminal acts: any action could be excused if it benefited the ruler. Some are unsure whether Machiavelli believed these things and was recommending them to rulers, or perhaps was just publicizing them as a warning to an unwary public. Some even see them as satire, a serious jester's slap at bad rulers. In any case, the term "Machiavellian" has come to describe these cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous actions.
  • William Inge (1913-1973) was an American playwright and novelist. His works often set a solitary protagonist against difficulty in sexual relations. His first successful play, Come Back, Little Sheba, won its star (Shirley Booth) a Tony; she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the filmed version. His next play, Picnic, won a Pulitzer for Drama, and the film adaptation won two Academy Awards. This and subsequent plays (notably Bus Stop, the filmed version of which starred Marilyn Monroe) evoked small-town life in the American heartland, earning him the title "Playwright of the Midwest."
May 4
  • William H. Prescott (1796-1859) was an American historian widely agreed to be the first American to approach history as a science. Seriously visually impaired, he nevertheless became one of the most eminent historians of 19th century America. He specialized in late Renaissance Spain and the early Spanish Empire, notably The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic, The History of the Conquest of Mexico, A History of the Conquest of Peru, and an unfinished History of the Reign of Phillip II, and was renowned as one of the greatest living American intellectuals in his day.
  • Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) was an English biologist and anthropologist and one of the Huxleys, grandfather (by his son Leonard) of Julian Huxley, evolutionary biologist and the first Director of UNESCO; Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, The Perennial Philosophy, and The Doors of Perception; and Andrew Huxley, who won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the mechanisms of the nerve cell. Thomas's defense of Darwin's theory of evolution earned him the nickname "Darwin's Bulldog," and his 1860 debate with Church of England bishop Samuel Wilberforce boosted acceptance of evolution as well as Huxley's own career, though accounts of the debate may be fabricated to some degree. Although virtually self-taught, Huxley became one of the finest comparative anatomists of the later 19th century, working on (among other things) the relationship between apes and humans. He also made the bird-dinosaur connection widely accepted today. It was he who coined the term "agnosticism" and elaborated on it to frame the nature of claims in terms of what is knowable and what is not, a major contribution to the modern worldview. His works include an Autobiography and Selected Essays; Man's Place in Nature, and Other Essays; Science and Culture, and Other Essays; On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals; and Evolution and Ethics, and Other Essays.
May 5
  • Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish philosopher and theologian considered by many to be the first existentialist philosopher. (Existentialism focuses on the problem of human existence, particularly the subjective experiences of thinking, feeling, and acting.) He used metaphor, irony, and parables to write on religious topics: organized (state) religion, ethics, psychology, and the philosophy of religion. Objectivity has its place in science and scholarship, he wrote, but "Christianity teaches that the way is to become subjective, to become a subject." The "leap of faith" was his idea, though he never used those words (he called it the "qualitative leap"); when objectivity has taken one as far as it can, one must venture past the bounds of what can be known to discover what can't. His works include: Either/Or, which contrasts the hedonistic with the ethical life; Fear and Trembling, which examines the anxiety Abraham must have felt when deciding to comply with God's order to kill Isaac--or refuse it; and The Sickness Unto Death, which equates despair with the Christian concept of sin, which he terms "the sin of despair." He died at 42, possibly of tuberculosis.
  • Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher and with a handful of others--Darwin and Freud come to mind--a creator of the world in which we live. Politics since Marx either follows his thought or opposes it, but it can't ignore "Marxism" or "Marxist ideology." With his wife and children, he lived in London for decades, collaborating with another German thinker, Friedrich Engels. Much of his research was done in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Marxism 101 says that in history, human societies develop through class conflict. In capitalism, this is conflict between the ruling classes (the bourgeoisie) and the working classes (the proletariat). Capitalism, he said, produces internal tensions that will lead to its self-destruction and replacement by a new system: socialism. He advocated an organized revolution of the working class. His most important works are The Communist Manifesto (with Friedrich Engels--a mere pamphlet) and the monumental three-volume Das Kapital (Capital).
May 6
  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis who, like Darwin and Marx, was a shaper of the world we live in. Before Freud, the person-in-the-street wouldn't be throwing around phrases like Oedipus complex, denial, ego, libido, death wish, defense mechanism, phallic symbol, projection, transference--or Freudian slip. His formal ideas--the importance of dreams and the unconscious; the model of the psychic structure comprising the id, the ego, and the super-ego; the psychosexual development of the individual--have penetrated everyday awareness in extraordinary ways. He popularized (if not invented) something called "talk therapy," the evaluation and treatment of psychological problems through doctor/patient dialogue. Some of his shorter works are quite readable (the titles are more-or-less self explanatory, from the shortest up until about 250 pages): Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis; The Ego and the Id; The Future of an Illusion (on religion); Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Civilization and Its Discontents; Moses and Monotheism; and Totem and Taboo. Nearly 700 pages but worth skimming: The Interpretation of Dreams.
  • Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) was a Japanese poet, essayist, short fiction writer, and novelist noted for historical and autobiographical works. Try The Bullfight, The Roof Tile of Tempyo, and Tun-huang.
  • Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) was an American poet (and the US Poet Laureate 1956-1958), literary critic, children's author (his books were illustrated by Maurice Sendak), essayist, and novelist remembered for his devastating, short poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"; poetry collections The Woman at the Washington Zoo and The Lost World; and a satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution, based on his teaching experience at Sarah Lawrence College.
  • Orson Welles (1915-1985) was an American director, actor, screenwriter, and producer in the media of radio, theater, and film. Some consider him among the greatest filmmakers of all time; others think he was a poser. In the 1930s he directed an adaptation of Macbeth with an entirely African American cast, nicknamed The Voodoo Macbeth (gimmicky?); and a political musical, The Cradle Will Rock. He founded the Mercury Theatre in 1937 with John Houseman, which led to one of his signature moments (at age 23), the radio adaptation of H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds, which reportedly caused some listeners to actually believe we were being invaded from outer space. (Reports are likely to have been exaggerated for the sake of publicity.) His first film was Citizen Kane, often at the top of "Best" lists; there followed twelve other features, including The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and some Shakespeare. Kane received nine Academy Award nominations but won only for Best Original Screenplay. Welles received an Academy Honorary Award in 1970. His rich baritone got him lots of work, including voice-over for commercials; he was also a lifelong magician.
May 7
  • David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher known for his system of philosophical empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism as embodied in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He held that passions govern human behavior, proclaiming that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." There's much more to his work, but it was so varied--and deep--that we can not even scratch the surface here. Let's leave it at that.
  • Robert Browning (1812-1889) was a Victorian English poet who married fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett and moved with her to Italy. I recommend his dark, evocative tale of a questing knight in "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"; his examination of esthetics via a dramatic monologue about the Italian painter "Andrea Del Sarto"; a narcissist discussing a painting of his late wife in "My Last Duchess"; a verse retelling of the well-known tale "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"; and the longer examination of esthetics in the voice of the historical artist/monk Fra Lippo Lippi.
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1833) was a German composer, considered one of the "Three Bs" with Bach and Beethoven. Though he wrote in many genres, today nothing is as familiar as his "Lullaby." Listen also to his Academic Festival Overture; The Tragic Overture; A German Requiem; Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; The Paganini Variations; and Variations on a Theme by Haydn.
  • Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a--some would say the--Russian composer. He suffered from depression and experienced a number of personal crises: his mother's early death; the death of his close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein; and the loss of his patron of 13 years. He was a closeted homosexual, which may also have added to the tensions of his life in Russia of the 19th century. He is supposed to have died suddenly of cholera at 53; some see a greater likelihood of an intentional death. His unmistakably Russian style is expressed in one of my personal favorites, the 1812 Overture. There are also the ballets Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty; the opera Eugene Onegin; and shorter pieces Marche Slave and Capriccio Italien in A.
  • Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was an Indian (Bengali) polymath; perhaps best known to us as a poet, he was also a playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter. His influence on Bengali literature was vast, and in 1913 he was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. His Gitanjali (Song Offerings) are highly readable.
  • Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) was an American poet and writer who won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for poetry (Conquistador, 1933; and Collected Poems 1917-1952, 1953); and one for Drama (J.B.--a modern retelling of the story of the biblical Job--1959). He served as Librarian of Congress under FDR (1939-1944) and as a Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard (1949-1962).
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013) was a German-born British and American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter known for her novel Heat and Dust, and adapting the screenplays from E. M. Forster's Room with a View and Howards End (winning Oscars for both). She was born Ruth Prawer of German parents in Germany, but emigrated to Britain with her family in 1939, where she met and married an Indian architect. Together they moved to India in 1951, where she began writing novels based on her experiences there. In 1975, she moved to the United States and continued writing. But since 1963 she had been collaborating with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, leading to her Oscars and making her the only person to have won that award and a Booker Prize--in fact, for her novel Heat and Dust, which she adapted for Merchant/Ivory in 1983. The first project she did for them was her novel The Householder, in 1963. Altogether she worked with them on over 20 films, including some based on books by Henry James, E.M. Forster (as mentioned), and Kazuo Ishiguro.
May 8
  • Gary Snyder (1930 - ) is an American man of letters best known as a Beat-type poet, but also an essayist, lecturer, and environmental activist (see his "Smokey the Bear Sutra"). He won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1974 book Turtle Island, poems and essays on Snyder's vision for humans to live in harmony with the earth and all its creatures. ("Turtle Island" is a name for the continent of North America used by many Native American tribes.) He is also a translator of Buddhist literature from ancient Chinese and modern Japanese; a long-time Buddhist with strong connections to Japan, he was the inspiration for the character "Japhy Ryder" in Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums. He is now professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Davis, where he began teaching writing in 1986.
  • Thomas Pynchon (1937 - ) is an American author of "dense and complex" novels; he also writes on history, music, science, and mathematics. His novel Gravity's Rainbow won the 1973 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction; with V. and The Crying of Lot 49, it is among the three best known of his eight novels. Notoriously reclusive from the media, there have been few photographs of him published, and his location (and even identity) has been uncertain since the 1960s. His most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, was published in 2013.
May 9
  • J. M. Barrie (1860-1937) was a Scottish novelist and playwright whose other works (there were nearly 70) were overshadowed by that one annoying character who showed up in five of Barrie's novels and plays: Peter Pan. The character grew, as did Carroll's Alice (in Wonderland), from Barrie's close acquaintance with the children of a family (raising the usual unfounded speculations posthumously). The boy on whom the character was based, Peter Llewelyn Davies, threw himself under a train as it was pulling into a London Underground station when he was 63. Anyway, the story may also have popularized (if not downright introduced) the name Wendy. His best-known non-Peter work may be The Admirable Crichton, written for the stage and adapted to film, TV, and radio at least five times.
  • Mona Van Duyn (1921-2004) was an American poet and long-time academic. Her Near Changes took the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1991; she was Poet Laureate of the USA, 1992. To See, To Take (1970) was a collection of poems that included three previous books and some uncollected work; it won the National Book Award for Poetry (1971)
  • Charles Simic (1938 - ) is a Serbian-born American poet who received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990 for The World Doesn't End. He was Poet Laureate of the USA in 2007-2008. Other works include Selected Poems, 1963-1983 (1986) and Unending Blues (1987), both of which were finalists for the Pulitzer.
May 10
  • Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a Swiss theologian known for his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, and as part of the Confessing Church, which opposed Protestant cooperation with the Nazis. He was also working on an unfinished multi-volume Church Dogmatics. (The fourth of a planned five volumes was published mainly in note form, and the fifth was never started. What was finished was published in thirteen books.) His influence reached beyond theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Küng, and Reinhold Niebuhr, to novelists such as Flannery O'Connor and John Updike. A pastor like his father, he was also a university professor who lectured in the United States on a visit in 1962. In the same year he was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
  • Ariel Durant (1898-1981) was a Russian-born American historian and author. Overshadowed perhaps by her co-author and husband Will Durant (he being male and all), who married her when she was 15 and he almost double that, she nevertheless toiled side by side with him on their great work The Story of Civilization, and they were both named when Volume 10 (Rousseau and Revolution) won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1968. The Durants also wrote a 420-page Dual Autobiography in 1978. They died within two weeks of each other three years later.
  • David O. Selznick (1902-1965) was an American filmmaker best known for producing Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940), both of which earned him Academy Awards for Best Picture. He also worked as Head of Production on numerous films, including King Kong (1933) at RKO. Then, at MGM, he produced more boffo films for his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer. He established his own company, Selznick International Pictures, in 1935, where in addition to his two Oscar winners, he produced The Prisoner of Zenda and A Star Is Born (both 1937). More work with Hitchcock (whom he had brought over from England for Rebecca, Hitch's only Best Picture winner) and other Big Names followed. Oh, and he was also a well-documented sexual predator.
May 11:
  • Irving Berlin (1888-1989) was a Russian-born Jewish-American composer responsible for one of the most popular (secular) holiday songs ever written: "White Christmas." He was born Israel Beilin in the Russian Empire, son of a cantor. His father died when Irving was just a boy, and he had to work hawking newspapers on the street. While working in the Bowery he heard the music drifting out of the saloons and dance halls along the crowded streets. He started singing some of the songs he heard (still while selling papers) and people would toss him spare coins. It wasn't enough: he left home and lived in squalor in the Bowery, singing to the customers in saloons. This was his musical education. He became a song-plugger, and at 18 started singing parodies of popular songs in saloons. He taught himself to play the piano, and, in 1907, sold the publishing rights to his first song--for 33 cents. From these humble beginning he rose to be one of America's greatest songwriters. His first world-famous hit was "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and he went on to write shows like Annie Get Your Gun and songs like "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Easter Parade," "Blue Skies," "Puttin' On the Ritz," and hundreds more.
  • Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was a Spanish surrealist artist known for the striking and bizarre images in his work. He lived in France during the Spanish Civil War, and the U.S. during World War II. His genres included painting, graphic arts, film, sculpture, design, and photography, sometimes in collaboration with other artists. He also wrote: fiction, poetry, autobiography, essays, and criticism. But his public persona is perhaps better remembered than anything he produced: the mustache, the pet ocelot ("Babou"), and the public behavior that might best be interpreted as "performance art." One of his best-known paintings is the one with the dripping clocks, Persistence of Memory; the disjointed figure in Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War); the slightly more traditional (less surrealistic) Christ of Saint John of the Cross and Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus); and way out there on the edge, The Hallucinogenic Toreador.
  • Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was that rarest of beasts, a scientist (specifically, an American theoretical physicist) who became a celebrity. There's lots of science-y stuff we could talk about--so much that he got a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965--but why? Better to just read his memoirs Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? Learn how he played the bongos in a samba parade in Brazil, and offended the sensibilities of faculty wives. Or how he provided a simply-expressed breakthrough while investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. If you really need the science, try The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Two more pleasurable reads: The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist; and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. He is also the inventor of the Feynman Problem-Solving Algorithm:
    1. Write down the problem.
    2. Think very hard.
    3. Write down the answer.
May 12
  • Edward Lear (1812-1888) was an English artist and writer now known mostly for his nonsense poetry, including "The Owl and the Pussycat," and especially his over 200 limericks. Here's one of his most famous:
    There was an Old Man with a beard,
    Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
    Two Owls and a Hen,
    Four Larks and a Wren,
    Have all built their nests in my beard!'
    He was also an illustrator of, among other things, the poems of Tennyson (a personal friend). He also composed musical settings of Tennyson's poetry. Lighthearted as his works were, he suffered lifelong health problems: frequent grand mal epileptic seizures, bronchitis, asthma and, in later years, partial blindness.
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (actually Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, 1828-1882) was an English poet and painter, and one of the Rossetti clan. Co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais), he was later the main inspiration for a second generation of artists and writers influenced by the movement, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. His sensual art was part of a "medieval revival," influenced by Dante and Sir Thomas Malory, among others. His poetry includes "The Blessed Damozel" and the sonnet sequence, The House of Life.
  • Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) was a French composer, one of the foremost of his generation, and perhaps best known for his Pavane and the song "Clair de lune." He began his musical education at age nine, training to be a church organist and choirmaster. Camille Saint-Saëns was one of his teachers, and became a lifelong friend. His lifespan covered musical trends from Chopin--still composing when he was born--to the advent of jazz and atonal music. He became increasingly deaf during the last twenty years of his life, which seems to have turned his composition to a darker mood different from the lightness of his early works.
  • Leslie Charteris (born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin, 1907-1993) British-Chinese author of adventure fiction, best known as the creator of Simon Templar, "The Saint." (The books are a hoot to read.) Born in Singapore of an English mother and a Chinese physician father, his own daughter claimed that he selected the name "Charteris" from a telephone directory after moving to England; he changed it legally in 1926. He moved to the U.S. in 1932, where he became a screenwriter as he continued his long-running Saint series--a total of nearly 100 books, as well as radio, TV, and movies, many of them ghost-written in later years. For a time in the U.S., he was excluded from permanent residence under the Chinese Exclusion Act, but he and his daughter were personally granted the right by an act of Congress, and he later became a naturalized citizen. He was one of the earliest members of Mensa.
May 13
  • Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) was a French novelist, short story writer, playwright, and poet, who left his intolerable teaching job in the south of France (he said later that for months after leaving, he would wake with horror, thinking he was still among his unruly pupils) and went to live with his brother in Paris, where he became a writer. He is best known for his short stories, including those in the Provence-based Letters From My Windmill; the boffo novel Fromont Junior and Risler Senior, which made his reputation; and the comic Tarascon novels, including Tartarin of Tarascon, about the misadventures of a would-be lion hunter.
  • Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) was an English composer who, with his writing partner W. S. Gilbert, wrote such enduring productions as H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. These are among his 24 operas, 11 major orchestral works, ten choral works and oratorios, two ballets, and more--including the well-known martial hymn, "Onward, Christian Soldiers." Son of a military bandmaster, he began composing at the age of eight and studied formally, writing other works before hooking up with Gilbert in 1871.Profits from their work helped the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte to build the Savoy Theatre in 1881; G & S's works came to be known as the Savoy operas. Gilbert left the partnership in 1890, after a quarrel over expenses at the Savoy. They wrote two more operas in the 1890s, but they weren't as big as their previous work. When Sullivan died at age 58, he was regarded as Britain's foremost composer; his style had "set the stage" for the genre of musical theatre to follow.
  • Georges Braque (1882-1963) was a French artist who co-founded (with Picasso) the modern style known as Cubism. After identifying with the Fauvist "wild beasts" from 1905, he became closely associated with Picasso until 1912. For a time the work of one was indistinguishable from that of the other, though Picasso's brash showmanship finally eclipsed Braque's fame. His later works reflect a softening of the sometimes-harsh cubist style. Cubism, by the way, is essentially an early-20th-century style in which objects are analyzed, broken up, and reassembled in an abstracted form; instead of depicting them from a single viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints simultaneously to represent it in a greater context. One listing of Braque's works names 243 paintings and drawings, aside from sculptures.
May 14
  • Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was an English painter best known--in my world, at least--for his The Blue Boy which hung (and hangs) at the Huntington Library, about five or six miles (an easy bike ride) from my childhood home. Until I was around 40, entry was free, and in my teen years I went often (often with a girl, to take pictures of her in the lush gardens). Anyway, uh, Gainsborough, yeah: One of the most important British artists of the second half of the 18th century, he was a prolific painter of portraits, also known for his landscapes. Gainsborough was a founding member of the Royal Academy. Other famous paintings (he made more than 300, 220 of which were portraits) include Mr. and Mrs. Andrews; The Watering Place; and the charming Girl with Pigs.
  • Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) was an American clarinet player, saxophonist, and composer, born in New Orleans, and one of the first important soloists in jazz, and the first ever recorded. (He was taught by my great-grandfather.) Duke Ellington called him "the epitome of jazz," though he never learned to read sheet music. He spent his final years in France, where he had first traveled in 1925 in the Revue Nègre that included Josephine Baker. There he was appreciated by a wider audience, and had more general freedom than he did in the segregated United States. He was deported back to America in 1929 after imprisonment for accidentally shooting a woman; he had been trying to shoot another musician who had insulted his musicianship, and missed. In 1951 he returned to France to settle permanently. where he was nicknamed by some "Le Dieu"--The God. An unverified statement says that he was the inspiration for the character "Pablo" in Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf.
  • Ed Ricketts (1897-1948) was an American marine biologist, ecologist, and philosopher, the model for "Doc" in John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row. Aside from his own Between Pacific Tides, Ricketts collaborated with Steinbeck on the book, Sea of Cortez. Three years after Ricketts's death, Steinbeck removed the portion written by Ricketts and republished his own part--adding a biography of Ricketts--as The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
  • Hal Borland (1900-1978) was an American author, journalist and naturalist who was a staff writer and editorialist for The New York Times in addition to his publications on nature and ecology. After taking a B.A. in literature at Columbia, he worked for a variety of newspapers across the U.S., eventually settling in Philadelphia. Many of his nature writings first saw the light as editorials in the Times and other papers; he also wrote short stories, poetry, novels, and more. His novel When the Legends Die was adapted for film in 1972. Other well-known books include High, Wide, and Lonesome, about growing up on a homestead in eastern Colorado; and Hal Borland's Book of Days, a day-by-day journey through a year of the outdoor world.
  • Jean Daniélou (1905-1974) was a French cardinal and theologian who specialized in the study of the early Church fathers (a field called "patristics"; he was a "patrologist"). After publishing dozens of theological works, he died in the home of a prostitute at age 69; the Jesuits claim he was delivering her some money to bail her husband out of jail. Hmmm.
  • Robert Zemeckis (1952 -) is an American director, producer, and screenwriter noted for his innovation in visual effects. Maybe his biggest early hit was Romancing the Stone (few effects), but there followed the eye-feasts the Back to the Future film trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, and Forrest Gump, which won him the Academy Award for Best Director, and the film itself Best Picture. This year we'll see the live-action computer-animated musical fantasy film, Pinocchio.
May 15
  • L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) was an American children's author best known for the Wizard of Oz and its 13 sequels. He also wrote 41 other novels, 83 short stories, over 200 poems, and at least 42 scripts, but his place in history (and in my heart) depends on the 1939 film adaptation of WoO, a perfect "hook" on which to hang Joseph Campbell's teachings about "The Hero's Journey"--especially since this time he's a she. Born in New York state, and spending most of his career in the Midwest, he died in Los Angeles trying to establish a movie studio focused on producing films for children.
  • Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was an American short story writer and novelist. Born Callie Russell Porter, she adopted the name of the grandmother who raised her (after her mother's death), though grandma's name was spelled with a "c." She also embroidered her family tree in sometimes fantastic ways, showing a penchant for reinventing herself. This talent led to her deciding to become a writer while spending two years in sanatoriums when her bronchitis was misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. She began critiquing dramas and writing society gossip for newspapers, but almost died in the 1918 flu pandemic, an experience reflected later in a trilogy of short novels titled together Pale Horse, Pale Rider. She moved to New York where she worked as a ghost writer and wrote children's novels, as well as PR for a movie company. She worked for a magazine publisher in Mexico, traveling back and forth and becoming involved with members of the Mexican leftist movement, with whom she later became disillusioned. Her 1930 short-story collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, assured her place in American literature. She spent several years in Europe, became a college teacher, and, in 1962, published her only novel, Ship of Fools (the best-selling novel in America that year). Her 1966 The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter won a Pulitzer Prize and a U.S. National Book Award; She died in 1980 at the age of 90.
  • Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) was a Russian writer, medical doctor, and playwright. Many of his works were banned by the Soviet government--and Josef Stalin himself--as being sympathetic to the wrong side; nevertheless, Stalin loved his play The Days of the Turbins and reportedly saw it at least 15 times. Bulgakov is best known for his novel The Master and Margarita, published posthumously, which has been called one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.
May 16
  • Louis "Studs" Terkel (1912-2008) was an American author and historian best known for oral histories of "everyday Americans." Born in NYC, at age 8 he moved with his family to Chicago, then America's "second city," with which he was ever after associated. Though he took a law degree at U of C, he went to work in radio, taking various jobs until he landed The Studs Terkel Program in 1952, which ran 45 years until 1997; on tis show he interviewed such diverse guests as Martin Luther King Jr., Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, and Frank Zappa. In the meantime (late '40s and early '50s) he did the unscripted Studs' Place on TV, in which famous people and interesting characters passed through his greasy-spoon diner in Chicago. All this interviewing got him into the oral history racket, for which most of us outside of Chicago know him. In the '70s he wrote Hard Times, about the Great Depression, and Working, in which (per the subtitle) "People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do." In 1985 he won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for "The Good War": An Oral History of World War Two. The nickname "Studs," by the way, comes from the time he was reading James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy while acting in a play with another actor named "Louis."
  • Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was an American feminist poet and essayist who has been called "one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century." It is said she brought "the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse." She married in the 1950s and became the mother of three sons; it wasn't until she moved out of her husband's home (and he subsequently shot himself, making her a widow) that Rich publicly acknowledged her sexuality. She has published over two dozen collections of poetry, the most famous of which may be Diving Into the Wreck; but her very first collection, A Change of World, was lauded by no less than W. H. Auden in the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. She has also written at least nine non-fiction works, some of them collections of essays.
May 17
  • Edward Jenner (1749-1823) was an English physician and scientist who, in creating the first smallpox vaccine, pioneered the very concept of vaccines themselves. The "father of immunology," he is a hero. In his day, smallpox was killing around 10% of the population, and as high as 20% in more densely-populated areas (towns and cities) where infection spread more easily. Had he lived today, however, he could probably not have accomplished this feat: he tested his hypothesis by injecting pus acquired from a woman with cowpox into both arms of an eight-year-old boy, the son of his gardener. The boy suffered a fever, but no full-blown infection. He then twice exposed the boy to a weakened ("variolated") form of smallpox, and he showed no signs of the disease. Jenner went on to great scientific and political achievements, and died of a stroke at 73.
  • Howard Ashman (1950-1991) was an American playwright and lyricist who collaborated with composer Alan Menken on several works, including songs for Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. He was able to see an early screening of Beauty and the Beast, but died of AIDS at age 40 before it was released. The film is dedicated to him; a message in the closing credits reads: "To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950-1991." Kirk Wise, co-director of the film, said, "If you had to point to one person responsible for the 'Disney Renaissance,' I would say it was Howard." He and Menken received seven Oscar nominations for their work, of which they won two, for The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea" and the title song from Beauty and the Beast. They also won five Grammys out of 11 nominations.
May 18
  • Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) was a Persian man of many talents, but is best known to us as a poet--whether he really wrote any poems or not. He was certainly a mathematician who worked on geometric solids, and an astronomer who designed a very precise solar calendar and calculated an outstandingly accurate length for the year. But many of the quatrains known as the Rubaiyat and attributed to him have been found to be the work of others. Nevertheless, we wouldn't be talking about him if Edward Fitzgerald hadn't produced in 1859 a loose translation of hundreds of verses with his name literally in the title: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, including the immortal line: "A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou."
  • Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and activist who wrote the Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead, as well as a number of atheistic pieces such as What I Believe and Why I Am Not a Christian. He also wrote a wonderful History of Western Philosophy. Surprising, then, that given his skepticism, he received a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, which cited his "varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought."
  • Frank Capra (1897-1991) was an Italian-born American film director, producer and writer known for such Oscar-winning "screwball comedies" as It Happened One Night, as well as You Can't Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the Christmas classic (sort of a flop at first) It's a Wonderful Life. His own life story was "rags-to-riches," having arrived in America when he was five and settled in the "Italian ghetto" on the east side of Los Angeles. His films reflect a love of America--and freedom--that has been dubbed "the Capra myth." And no wonder; here's a memory from age five: arriving in New York Harbor, he saw "a statue of a great lady, taller than a church steeple, holding a torch above the land we were about to enter" and his father said, "Look at that! That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That's the light of freedom! Remember that." He never forgot.
  • Meredith Willson (1902-1984) was an American composer who, had he never written anything else (and he pretty much never did), would be remembered for one play/movie: The Music Man, my second-favorite film (after The Wizard of Oz). Oh, he also wrote "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Born in Iowa (no surprise if you know the misadventures of Harold Hill), he had a distinguished career in classical and popular music after attending what became the Juilliard School in New York City.
  • Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971) was a Japanese-born Buddhist monk who brought his teachings to the United States at age 55, establishing the San Francisco Zen Center in 1962. In 1967, he also founded Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen Buddhist monastery outside Asia. Shortly before his death from cancer in 1971, a collection of his Zen talks was published in the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.
May 19
  • Malcolm X (1925-1965) was an American Muslim minister and icon of the civil rights movement. Born Malcolm Little, upon his release from prison at age 22 (for larceny and breaking and entering), he changed his name to "X," eschewing his "white slavemaster name" and using "X" as a signifier for his unknown African name. (After making the pilgrimage to Mecca as a member of the Nation of Islam--he had converted in prison--he changed his name again to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz). He stood against the mainstream non-violent civil rights movement--he called Martin Luther King Jr. a "chump" for his perceived cooperation with the "white establishment." Rejecting that strategy, he famously argued that black people should advance their cause "by any means necessary." Dozens of streets, schools, colleges, and libraries have been named after Malcolm X. He was assassinated in 1965, most likely at the hands of the Nation of Islam, though some look to the NYPD, the FBI, or the CIA.
  • Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was an American playwright and director, the first African-American female author to have a play performed on Broadway. She was born in Chicago; after she moved to New York City, she worked on a newspaper with Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois. Her best known work, the play A Raisin in the Sun, depicts the effect of racial segregation on Black Americans in Chicago. The play's title was taken from the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem": "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" She was the first African-American dramatist, the fifth woman, and the youngest playwright to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award--and at the age of 29. She died of pancreatic cancer at age 34.
  • Nora Ephron (1941-2012) was an American director, producer, and screenwriter best known for her romantic comedy films, like When Harry Met Sally..., Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail. But she could also do heavier work, like Silkwood. She was thrice nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Silkwood, Harry, Sleepless) but never won. She died of cancer at age 71; five years later Steven Spielberg's film The Post was dedicated to her--she was once married to the newspaper's legendary reporter Carl Bernstein, and was close to many people on the production.
  • Jodi Picoult (1966 -) is an American author and educator who has published 27 novels, accompanying short stories, and has also written several issues of the comic book Wonder Woman. Approximately 40 million copies of her books are in print worldwide, and they have been translated into 34 languages. her work often covers such hot-button topics as abortion, assisted suicide, race relations, eugenics, LGBT rights, and school shootings.
May 20
  • Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was a famously bawdy French novelist and playwright. His magnum opus is the novel sequence La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), a panorama of post-Napoleonic French life. Regarded as a founder of realism in European literature, he is remembered for his multi-faceted characters; his writing influenced writers such as Zola, Dickens, Flaubert, and Henry James. He suffered from health problems (and the effects of an irascible character) throughout his life; his family relations were often strained by financial and personal drama. La Comédie humaine consists of 91 finished novels, stories, and essays, and another 46 unfinished (some of which exist only as titles). Balzac published 49 novels and novellas during his lifetime, including Eugénie Grandet, Le Père Goriot, and La Cousine Bette; around a dozen more were published posthumously. He also published seven plays and numerous short stories. Many of his works have been adapted into films and television series.
  • John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an English philosopher, considered the most influential of 19th-century English thinkers. A proponent of utilitarianism (first formulated by his predecessor Jeremy Bentham, and which suggests that the best action is the one that secures the greatest good for the greatest number), he was also an early feminist and a fierce defender of personal freedom. Godfather to Bertrand Russell, he was an administrator of the East India Company from 1823 to 1858. In his mid-40s he married Harriet Taylor, an intimate friend of 21 years, only to have her die (aged 51) seven years later. His works include an Autobiography; On Liberty; Utilitarianism; and The Subjection of Women.
May 21
  • Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was a German painter and printmaker, and an important figure of the Northern Renaissance, whose theoretical treatises involve principles of mathematics, perspective, and ideal proportions. His high-quality woodcut prints established his reputation across Europe when he was still in his twenties, and he was in contact with such Italian artists as Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, and Leonardo da Vinci. The best of his works are allegorical, including Knight, Death and the Devil, where the three title figures meet in a dark wood; Saint Jerome in his Study, in which Jerome's head lines up with a cross and a skull, as a lion and a sleeping dog lie in the foreground; and Melencolia I, in which Melancholy is personified by a gloomy winged female figure.
  • Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was an English poet and man of letters of the Augustan period (first half of the 18th century to the 1740s), and one of its "stars." The foremost English poet of the time, and a master of the heroic couplet, he is best known for his satires, like The Rape of the Lock, a mock-epic in which a lock of hair is stolen ("rape" here is an old sense of "snatch, grab, carry off"), and The Dunciad, featuring the goddess "Dulness." He also wrote a long poem, An Essay on Criticism, with such famous lines as "To err is human; to forgive, divine," "A little learning is a dang'rous thing," and "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread"; and he is noted for his translation of Homer. He is the second-most quoted author in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (after Shakespeare), and, like the Bard, many of his lines, like those just mentioned, have crept into common speech, as have "damning with faint praise," "to err is human; to forgive, divine," and many more. His major works number nearly 20, and there are many more besides.
  • Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) was a French Post-Impressionist painter noted for his primitive-looking jungley works (also known as the "Naïve manner"). He worked as a toll and tax collector until, at age 49, his art permitted him to retire and paint full time, even though he had only started painting seriously in his early forties. Self-taught, he was ridiculed by critics during his lifetime, but ultimately came to be recognized as the genius that he was. His work has exerted an great influence on several generations of artists. See The Sleeping Gypsy, where a lion snuffles at a sleeping woman in moonlight; Tiger in a Tropical Storm, in which a tiger about to pounce on its prey is revealed in a flash of lightning; The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, which needs no explanation; and Boy on the Rocks, in which a seemingly gargantuan boy seemingly bestrides the world--without any big cats in the picture.
  • Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller (1904-1943) was an American composer and "stride" jazz pianist, among other performing talents. He is best known for the compositions "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose." He also wrote "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue," and may have written many, many more than we know. Some believe that he wrote both "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby" and sold the rights to them to a white songwriter, Jimmy McHugh, the acknowledged composer of both. Nevertheless, he copyrighted over 400 songs, many of them co-written with poet and lyricist Andy Razaf, who said of Waller that he was "the soul of melody... a man who made the piano sing... both big in body and in mind... known for his generosity... a bubbling bundle of joy." He started playing piano at age six, and by 18 he was a recording artist who became one of the most popular performers of his era, touring internationally. Sadly, he died from pneumonia at age 39. He received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.
May 22
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a German composer mainly known for his operas. Thanks to Bugs Bunny and others, when most people think of opera they think of large women with horned helmets: that's a parody of Wagner. Much of his work centers on German legends and folklore; the complexity of his music is exhibited in his Tristan und Isolde (about ill-fated lovers), sometimes considered the beginning of modern music. His other works include Tannhauser, about a knight and minstrel whose music violates the rules of courtly (Platonic) love; Lohengrin, about another knight, a mysterious one, who arrives in a boat drawn by a swan to save a damsel in distress; Parsifal, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th-century account of that knight's quest for the Holy Grail; and above all his four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), a masterful blending of stories from Norse legendary sagas and the Nibelungenlied ("Song of the Nibelungs," the adventures of one Siegfried). Wagner's last years were turbulent, but his influence can be seen in many of the arts of the 20th century, including philosophy, literature, the visual arts, and theater. Wagner's most important stage works continue to be performed at a festival run by his descendants.
  • Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American Impressionist painter, making her that most unusual of creatures: a female, American Impressionist. Born in Pittsburgh, she spent most of her life in France, where she befriended Edgar Degas. She often depicted the intimate, domestic lives of women and children, a subject regularly ignored by other artists. Among her over 300 works are The Boating Party; Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival; Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla; Little Girl in a Blue Armchair; and The Child's Bath.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a Scottish writer whose other works were overshadowed by one character: Sherlock Holmes. Yet, his Professor Challenger series runs a tight second for some, based on three novels (including The Lost World) and two short stories, which have spawned over a dozen films, TV programs, and radio dramas (not to mention at least 20 derivative works: Professor Challenger stories by other authors, video games, etc.) As for Doyle himself (not Conan Doyle--Conan is his middle name), he was a physician who later fell for some spiritualist claptrap, but wrote many other entertaining works along the way.
May 23:
  • Thomas Hood (1799 -1845) was an English poet. Early in life he was known for humorous verse, filled with puns and satire (Like his Odes and Addresses to Great People), but in later life, and especially when he was on his sick bed (he died at age 45), he wrote some poems of the sort we would call "socially conscious"; "The Bridge of Sighs" laments the plight of a homeless woman who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge; "The Song of the Shirt" reveals the abuses to the working poor, in this case a seamstress; and "The Lay of the Laborer," shows an unemployed fieldworker bemoaning the poverty of his family owing to the lack of available work. Other works include the rather sentimental "I Remember, I Remember"; other notable poems include "The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies," "Hero and Leander," and "Lycus the Centaur."
  • Susan Cooper (1935 - ) is an English author of Young Adult literature. In the past 15 years or so I've had the pleasure of reading a number of excellent series of YA fantasy literature, and few stand out in my mind like Cooper's The Dark is Rising pentalogy. Like Narnia, it features the adventures of a group of siblings, here Simon, Jane, and Barnabas (Barney) Drew. In the second novel, they meet Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son; on his 11th birthday he undergoes a magical awakening and a rise to power as the last of the Old Ones--not unlike Harry Potter, a "chosen one." Cooper draws upon Arthurian legends, Celtic mythology, Norse mythology, and English folklore for the adventures of these young people, as did Lloyd Alexander in his The Chronicles of Prydain. The five books are Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark Is Rising (which lent the series its name); Greenwitch; The Grey King; and Silver on the Tree. I may as well mention here the two books by Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, as being of the same ilk. These five (Cooper's, Narnia, Potter, Prydain, and the two Alderley books) would make a terrific summer reading spate. They all give Tolkien a run for his money.
May 24
  • William Gilbert (1544-1603) was an English physician, physicist and "natural philosopher" who is regarded by some as the father of electrical engineering or electricity and magnetism. We all know today that the earth is magnetic (don't we?), hence the function of compasses pointing north (and also that the earth's core is lead). But Gilbert was the first to suggest this, in his 1600 work On the Lodestone (an old word for magnet), 20 years before Bacon's Novum Organum. Before Gilbert, people suspected that magnetism was an attraction of the North Star, or maybe a magnetic "island" in the north. A side note: Gilbert was physician to Elizabeth I from 1601 to her death in March 1603. He was appointed to hold the same post under her successor, James I, but died seven moths after Elizabeth, probably of the bubonic plague. Not so good for the resume.
  • Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was a Russian-born American poet and essayist who was "strongly advised" to emigrate by the Soviet authorities. W. H. Auden and other supporters helped him settle in the US in 1972. He taught at Mount Holyoke College, and at various universities such as Yale, Columbia, Cambridge, and Michigan. In 1987, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for works "imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity." And in 1991, he was appointed US Poet Laureate. His works include the forty-page long poem Gorbunov and Gorchakov, about two patients in a mental asylum that serves as a metaphor for the Soviet State; and the collection of literary and autobiographical essays, Less Than One.
May 25
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American writer and perhaps the young country's first original philosopher. He was an essayist, lecturer, abolitionist, and poet, and a leader of the mid-19th century transcendentalist movement. In true American mode, he championed individualism, disseminating his ideology through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States. Starting out as a pastor (like his father), he struck out on his own with the publication of his 1836 essay "Nature," which expressed the philosophy of transcendentalism. He would often lecture on a topic, then revise his notes to publish as essays. Some of the more important of these are "The American Scholar," "Self-Reliance," "The Over-Soul," "Experience," and others. He returned again and again to the ideas of individuality, freedom, the ability of humankind to achieve almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the outside world. He was also a mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau, another transcendentalist.
  • Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was an American poet regarded as one of the most accomplished and influential of his generation; he won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for The Waking, and two National Book Awards for Poetry. Former U.S. Poet Laureate James Dickey said Roethke was "in my opinion the greatest poet this country has yet produced." He taught at the University of Washington for fifteen years, and two of his students from that period won Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry (and two others were nominated). Besides The Waking, look for The Lost Son, The Far Field, and Words for the Wind.
  • Raymond Carver (1938-1988) was an American short-story writer and poet who contributed to the revitalization of the American short story during the 1980s. Dead from lung cancer (and perhaps the effects of years of alcoholism) at age 50, he left behind five collections of short stories, including Where I'm Calling From and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (that story being the basis of the "play within a play" in Alejandro Iñárritu's film Birdman); eight poetry collections; and one screenplay. A number of his works have been filmed, including an adaptation of nine short stories and a poem in the Robert Altman film Short Cuts.
May 26
  • Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933) was an American author and illustrator of horror stories, best known for his book of short stories titled The King in Yellow. There is no single story by that name in the book; rather, it's a (fictional) forbidden play--which induces despair or madness in those who read it--mentioned in the first four of the book's ten stories. The first season of HBO's True Detective television series (2014) revolves around a string of crimes committed by or associated with the elusive "Yellow King," and there's a location called "Carcosa," a name drawn from the play. None of his subsequent "weird stories" were as successful as the ones in the book; in fact, Chambers has been compared unfavorably to writers like H.P. Lovecraft. His later works--historical fiction, romantic fiction, and war adventure stories--were more successful during his lifetime, but today he is better remembered for the weird ones.
  • John Wayne (1907-1979) was an iconic American actor, director, and producer mostly remember for the tough-guy persona he projected in Western and war movies, though he could play vulnerable (The Quiet Man, The Cowboys, The Shootist) and even comedic (McLintock!, loosely based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew). I pretty much despise everything he stood for politically and socially (see his Playboy interview if you don't know why), but I can't help but love virtually every one of his cowboy films (the war movies not so much). He made 179 film and television productions.
  • Miles Davis (1936-1991) was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, among the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz and 20th-century music. From bebop to hard bop to cool jazz to orchestral jazz collaborations, he adopted a variety of musical directions in his five-decade career; in his electric period, he experimented with rock, funk, African rhythms, and emerging electronic music technology. His 1959 Kind of Blue remains one of the most popular jazz albums of all time, having sold over five million copies in the U.S. Rolling Stone magazine described him as "the most revered jazz trumpeter of all time, not to mention one of the most important musicians of the 20th century."
  • Simon Armitage (1963 -) is an English poet, playwright and novelist, and the current Poet Laureate of the UK. He has published over 20 poetry collections, and advocated publicly for the promotion of poetry through  a podcast, radio, television, and many public appearances.
May 27
(Six of today's eight "Great Minds" are male American novelists. Sorry.)
  • Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a North African Muslim historian whom some consider the founder of what would become historiography, sociology, economics, and demography. Machiavelli, Hegel, and others considered him to be one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages. His best-known book, the Muqaddimah or "Introduction" was written in six months, and was used by later scholars to analyze the growth and decline of the Ottoman Empire. He personally interacted with Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid Empire.
  • Walter Nordhoff (1858-1937) was an American businessman and author who wrote a quirky little volume called The Journey of the Flame, a meticulously researched masterpiece of California literature about Spanish California. The story recounts (as though it were true) the journey of a twelve-year-old boy (with bright red hair--the "flame") with the Spanish viceroy of Baja California from the southern tip of Baja to Monterey in 1810. It was published under the authorship of one Antonio de Fierro Blanco, Nordhoff's pen name; he claims only to have "Englished" the text. Nordhoff's son Charles, by the way, is famous as the co-author with James Norman Hall of Mutiny on the Bounty and its sequels.
  • Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was an American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories. He created the characters Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon); Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man); and the Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse), all of whom influenced movies, including the genre of film noir. His stories often end up on "best of" lists; he is often regarded as one of the best mystery writers of all time.
  • Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was an American biologist who blew the whistle on the effects of DDT on birds in the brilliantly-titled Silent Spring. Trained as an aquatic biologist, she had previously achieved success with The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea. Her work is foundational to the global environmental movement.
  • John Cheever (1912-1982) was an American novelist and short story writer sometimes wryly called "the Chekhov of the suburbs." He wrote five novels; a compilation of his short stories, The Stories of John Cheever, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) was an American author of detective novels and non-fiction works who wrote the "Joe Leaphorn" and "Jim Chee" series (The Blessing Way, etc.) about Navajo Tribal Police. Hillerman was born in a town in Oklahoma that had been an Indian mission, and was comfortable with some of their folkways. Later, he worked as a journalist in New Mexico, and took a master's degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He wrote 18 Leaphorn/Chee novels and four non-series novels, as well as seven non-fiction books. His daughter Anne Hillerman has continued the Leaphorn/Chee series since his death--seven novels, so far.
  • John Barth (1930 - ) is an American writer whose best-known works were published in the 1960s, including The Sot-Weed Factor (a satirical retelling of the colonial history of Maryland, his home state), and Lost in the Funhouse (a collection of experimental short stories). Other well-known books (he wrote nearly 20) include The Floating Opera, a short novel offering a first-person account of a day when protagonist Todd Andrews contemplates suicide; The End of the Road, a black comedy often paired with Opera, in which protagonist Jacob Horner suffers from a nihilistic paralysis he calls "cosmopsis"; and Giles Goat-Boy, a comic novel in which the universe is portrayed as a university campus. The title character is a human boy raised as a goat, and comes to believe he is the Grand Tutor, the predicted Messiah. Barth ain't for the timid.
  • Harlan Ellison (1934 -2018) was an American author of science fiction. His published works include more than 1,700 works, including short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic book scripts, teleplays, essays, and criticism. He wrote a screenplay for a Star Trek episode, his A Boy and His Dog cycle, and his short stories "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" and "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." He won numerous awards, including multiple Hugos (the premier award in science fiction), Nebulas (also for science fiction), and Edgars (for mysteries).
May 28
  • Ian Fleming (1908-1964) was an English author. Like Arthur Conan Doyle and J. M. Barrie, virtually everything he did was forced to live in the shadow of his One Great Character, in this case: Bond, James Bond. (One exception is his children's book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, perhaps because of its "loosely based" 1968 film version, scripted by Roald Dahl and starring Dick Van Dyke when he was still a hot commodity.) Anyway, there were 14 Bond novels (by Fleming) and nine short stories; since Fleming's death, there have been nearly 50 Bond books by other authors, including John Gardner and Sebastian Faulks. Several of them are set in Bond's childhood. The character has long outlived his creator, who was himself a British naval intelligence officer during World War II. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the 27 film appearances of Bond, played by seven actors.
  • Patrick White (1912-1990) was an British-born Australian writer who published 12 novels, three short-story collections, two books of poetry, and eight plays. In 1973 he was the first (and so far only) Australian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. His work features humor, flowery prose, and a shifting narrative point of view. Perhaps his most notable novel, cited by the Nobel committee, is The Eye of the Storm; there is a film version (2011). Others include Voss, Riders in the Chariot, Happy Valley, The Tree of Man, and The Burnt Ones.
  • May Swenson (1913-1989) was an American poet and playwright considered by Harold Bloom to be one of the most important and original poets of the 20th century. She grew up the eldest of 10 children in a Mormon household where Swedish was spoken regularly and English was a second language. Much of her later poetry works were devoted to children. She has also translated the work of contemporary Swedish poets. Among her 10 poetry collections are New & Selected Things Taking Place and In Other Words.
  • Walker Percy (1916-1990) was an American novelist and essayist whose novels were set in and around New Orleans. He trained as a physician at Columbia, and went on to write novels that display existential questioning, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith (he was a secular oblate of the Order of St. Benedict). He wrote six novels, including The Moviegoer and The Second Coming, and 16 non-fiction works, some of them mere pamphlets.
May 29
  • G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was an English novelist, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, lay theologian, and critic. Some of his theological works, such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, anticipate the point-of-view and style of C. S. Lewis. He wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, around 200 short stories, 4,000 essays (mostly as newspaper columns), and several plays. He also wrote articles for the 14th edition (1929) of the Encyclopædia Britannica, including the entry on Charles Dickens and part of the entry on Humor. Among his more popular novels are The Napoleon of Notting Hill, in which a randomly selected King of England enacts some inane laws, and a local young man--the eponymous "Napoleon"--exploits them; and The Man Who Was Thursday, a send-up of anarchism in which most of the leading anarchists turn out to be secret policemen meant to defeat anarchism. Most of us today, though, will know him for the Father Brown stories, often adapted for film, radio, TV, and other media.
  • Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) was a German historian and philosopher who wrote the two-volume The Decline of the West, a work of world history that postulates that human cultures and civilizations, like biological entities, have a limited, predictable, and deterministic lifespan. He predicted (in 1918 and 1922) that around the year 2000 Western civilization would enter a period causing an over-assertion of the executive branch of government before Western civilization's final collapse. We may be in it. The book was cited as an influence by such later writers as Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, Ludwig Wittgenstein , Camille Paglia, William S. Burroughs, Martin Heidegger, and others.
  • T. H. White (1906-1964) was an English novelist who wrote, amongst perhaps dozens of other books, the Arthurian tetralogy called The Once and Future King, which includes The Sword in the Stone, famously Disneyfied. The tetralogy as a whole was adapted to become the Broadway musical Camelot, which lent its name to the Kennedy era. Two other Arthurian works of White's were an English translation of a medieval Latin bestiary, The Book of Beasts, and the posthumously published Book of Merlyn, a conclusion to The Once and Future King. J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman both cite White as an influence.
May 30
  • Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) was a Russian revolutionary anarchist, considered one of the most influential figures of anarchism. He gained substantial influence among radicals throughout Russia and Europe. He spent a  life actively working to promote his beliefs, being jailed and/or deported more than once. He and Marx disagreed on one major point: Marx wanted to use the state to bring about socialism; Bakunin wanted the state replaced (i.e. anarchy). He wrote his longer works, Statism and Anarchy and God and the State, in his last few years, while continuing his revolutionary activities. He died of ill health at 62, despite twice having received death sentences that were commuted to life sentences.
  • Fernando Amorsolo (1892-1972) was a Filipino painter known for portraits and rural Philippine landscapes. Days after his death he was the first person and one of only 11 painters (along with over 70 artists in various fields) to be named a National Artist of the Philippines. He worked as a part-time instructor at his alma mater, the University of the Philippines, for 38 years.
  • Howard Hawks (1896-1977) was an American film director, producer, and screenwriter from the classic Hollywood era. He explored many genres: comedies, dramas, gangster films, science fiction, film noir, war films, and westerns. His most popular films include Scarface (1932), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Rio Bravo (1959). None of his films received Oscars, though Sergeant York was nominated in 1942, and he was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1974. The citation called him "a master American filmmaker whose creative efforts hold a distinguished place in world cinema." He has influenced directors such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino.
  • Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was a Black American poet, novelist, children's writer, and playwright, and part of the Harlem Renaissance. Rare for a Black man in his time, he graduated with a master's degree in English from Harvard (after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from NYU). He was briefly married to the daughter of civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois; she filed for divorce when a few months after their wedding, he wrote her a letter confessing his love for men. Ten years later he married another woman and lived with her until his death some six years later. Overshadowed today by his colleague Langston Hughes, Cullen's work nevertheless expresses the experience of Black people in his day; one of his better-known poems, "Heritage," repeats its first line as a refrain: "What is Africa to me?" as he places his imagined homeland against his life as a "Christian" and an American. Also notable is his, "Yet Do I Marvel."

Please leave a comment - I can't WAIT to hear from you!