Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,
this sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting
to a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,
harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching
on this message from the dawn which says we and the world
are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And
even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we
will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here
now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.
“The First Green of Spring” by David Budbill from Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse. © Copper Canyon Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
(1945). His lifework included a series of 10 plays, known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, that explored the African-American experience, mostly in Pittsburgh, during the 20th century. Two of the plays, Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1988), won Pulitzer Prizes. About playwriting, he said: “I once wrote a short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World’ and it went like this: ‘The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I’m not sure what it means, other than life is hard.”
Wilson grew up in a poor neighborhood of Pittsburgh called “The Hill.” He had six siblings, and his father, a German baker and pastry cook, was often absent. As a teenager, he was always in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, reading. After a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon, he dropped out and decided to just go to the library every day, where he devoured Dylan Thomas and read every book he could get his hands on. He spent so much time in that library that after he became a famous playwright, the Carnegie Library awarded him an honorary high school diploma, the only one they ever bestowed.
Wilson spent three years in the Army, worked as a short-order cook, a porter, a dishwasher, and a gardener, before deciding to try and make it as a writer. He bought a stolen typewriter for $20.00 and began pounding out poems. He liked to write on napkins in bars, cigar stores, and cafés, listening to the way people spoke and what they talked about.
Wilson founded a theater company called Black Horizons Theatre in The Hill district in Pittsburgh. He didn’t know anything about directing plays, so he simply took out a theater-directing manual from the library and learned. The group performed his first play, Recycling, in 1968 in schools, public housing community centers, and small theaters. They charged 50 cents a ticket.
Years later, when Wilson’s play Fences opened on Broadway, it made $11 million in a year, setting a record. Other plays in The Pittsburgh Cycle include Jitney (1982), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986), and Radio Golf (2005).
In the early 1960s, August Wilson discovered the blues, in particular, the music of Ma Rainey. The sound and syncopation of blue music would have a profound impact on his writing. He said: “Blues is the bedrock of everything I do. All the characters in my plays, their ideas and their attitudes, the stance that they adopt in the world, are all ideas and attitudes that are expressed in the blues. If all this were to disappear off the face of the earth and some people two million unique years from now would dig out this civilization and come across some blues records, working as anthropologists, they would be able to piece together who these people were, what they thought about, what their ideas and attitudes toward pleasure and pain were, all of that. All the components of culture. Just like they do with the Egyptians, they piece together all that stuff.
“And all you need is the blues. So to me the blues is the book, it’s the bible, it’s everything. My greatest influence has been the blues. And that’s a literary influence, because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have.”
August Wilson died in 2005.
It’s the birthday of Ulysses S. Grant (books by this author), the Union general and 18th president of the United States, born in Point Pleasant, Ohio (1822). His middle name did not start with “S” — in fact, his middle name was Ulysses and his first name was Hiram — but the congressman who nominated him for admission to West Point sent his name in as “Ulysses S. Grant.” Since that was his name on all his official West Point paperwork, he decided to just keep it. He was ambivalent about attending the famous military academy, and he proved to be a mediocre student. Later in life, he said, “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace.” He went from being a clerk in his father’s leather goods store, to being a Civil War general, to being president in the span of seven years. After he left office, he found himself in serious financial difficulties so, at the urging of Mark Twain, he wrote his memoirs. He finished the book just before his death from throat cancer in 1885, and it earned $450,000 for his family.
It’s the birthday of activist and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King (books by this author), the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., born in Heiberger, Alabama (1927). She was the valedictorian of her high school class, and a talented singer and violinist. Education was very important to her, a value she picked up from her parents. She said she remembered her mother saying, “My children are going to college, even if it means I only have but one dress to put on.” So Coretta studied music and education at Antioch College in Ohio, and then won a fellowship to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. That’s where she met her future husband: King was a theology student at Boston University. They were married in 1953, and she began her new life as a pastor’s wife. She also worked alongside her husband on the Montgomery bus boycott, fought for passage of the Civil Rights Act, and — after his assassination in 1968 — founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
It’s the birthday of writer and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft (books by this author), born in London (1759). Her father was a drinker and a failed farmer; Mary’s eldest brother, Ned, received an education, but she didn’t. Her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the earliest books of feminist philosophy, and in it she argues that women should have the education that she herself was denied. Reform of educational institutions would benefit not only women, but also society, because fulfilled women would make better wives, mothers, and even workers in traditionally male fields. The book was controversial, in large part because Wollstonecraft was controversial. She had had a daughter out of wedlock with an American named Gilbert Imlay, and when he left her, she tried to kill herself. Then she joined a group of radical writers and publishers, where she met philosopher William Godwin. They became close friends, then lovers, and eventually married after she became pregnant. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin died of septicemia 10 days after giving birth to a second daughter, Mary, who would go on to marry Percy Shelley and write Frankenstein.
From A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”
And: “[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”
It’s the birthday of the author of the “Madeline” books, Ludwig Bemelmans (books by this author), born in Meran, Tyrol, Austria (1898). He was rebellious as a child. He went to many different schools, but he failed out of all them, so his family sent him to work with his uncle, who owned a chain of hotels. When Ludwig shot and almost killed a waiter for one of the hotels, his parents gave him the choice of reform school or immigration to America. He chose America, and arrived in New York when he was 16 years old.
He worked at a series of hotels, and then started his own restaurant, which became very successful. He didn’t think about becoming a writer until a friend in the publishing industry happened to see his childlike drawings on the walls of his apartment. His friend suggested that he write and illustrate a children’s book.
He’s best known for his five “Madeline” books; the first one tells the story of a young Parisian girl’s trip to the hospital to have her appendix removed. He got the idea when he was in the hospital recovering from a bicycle accident and there was a girl in the next room who had just had her appendix out.
Madeline (1939) begins: “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread, and brushed their teeth, and went to bed. They smiled at the good, and frowned at the bad, and sometimes they were very sad. They left the house at half past nine, in two straight lines, in rain or shine. The smallest one was Madeline!”