A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown—
Who ponders this tremendous scene—
This whole Experiment of Green—
As if it were his own!
“A little Madness in the Spring...” by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of the Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett (books by this author), born in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock (1906). He studied French and Italian at Trinity College, and, for a while, divided his time between Paris and Dublin. He taught English at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and taught French at Trinity College, and traveled around Europe for several years. He settled in Paris permanently in 1937. It was there that he met and befriended fellow Irish ex-pat James Joyce. Joyce’s eyesight was failing by this time, so Beckett would read to him and help him as he worked on Finnegans Wake. One day in 1937, Beckett was out walking with some friends when a panhandler attacked and stabbed him. A young piano student named Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil came to his aid and phoned for an ambulance. It was the start of a lifelong romance and eventual marriage. After he recovered from the stabbing, he visited the attacker in prison. Beckett asked the man why he had decided to attack him; the man said simply, “I don’t know.” Beckett was deeply influenced by the conversation, and began to realize how much of life is just a random series of events.
As an Irish citizen, Beckett was allowed to remain in Paris even after the Germans occupied the city. He chose to remain with Suzanne, and they both worked in the French Resistance until the Gestapo captured some of the members of their group. They went into hiding in rural France, where Beckett spent the rest of the occupation working on a farm and passing messages for the Resistance.
Beckett wrote a great deal beginning in the 1930s: poems, stories, novels, and essays. But it was a play he wrote in 1952 that made him famous. That was Waiting for Godot, which was first performed in 1953. Godot was groundbreaking. Typically, plays are concerned with questions that Beckett considered nonessential: will the hero gain fame or fortune, will he win the hand of his lady, will he live happily ever after? In Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s two characters are more concerned with the reason for their existence: what are we here for? One critic hailed it as “a masterpiece that will cause despair for men in general and for playwrights in particular.” It changed what a play could do. As Beckett scholar Ruby Cohn wrote: “After Godot, plots could be minimal; exposition, expendable; characters, contradictory; settings, unlocalized, and dialogue, unpredictable. Blatant farce could jostle tragedy.” The identity of the mysterious Godot has been the subject of much debate; Beckett once said, “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.”
Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969, but by this time he was avoiding all publicity to focus solely on his art. He accepted the award, but did not go to Stockholm for the awards ceremony because he didn’t want to make a public speech. His work became more and more sparse as he stripped away everything he decided was not essential. In 1967, he wrote a play, Come and Go, which contained only 121 words, which were spoken by three characters. His play Rockaby (1980) is only 15 minutes long, and his prose works also became shorter and shorter. He wrote a total of six novels, four long plays, many short plays and story fragments, and poems, teleplays, and essays. Beckett was also a prolific letter writer. His letters have been published in two volumes, and last year even more material was published as Dear Mr. Beckett: Letters from the Publisher, the Samuel Beckett File (2016).
It’s the birthday of American short-story writer and novelist Eudora Welty (books by this author) (1909). She was born, raised, and died in Jackson, Mississippi. Welty is best known for her trenchant stories of the South, like “Why I Live at the P.O.,” about an eccentric woman who alienates her family and ends up living at the post office, and her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), which won the Pulitzer Prize. About writing, Welty once said: “Fiction has, and must keep, a private address. For life is lived in a private place; where it means anything is inside the mind and heart.”
Eudora Welty’s books include The Wide Net and Other Stories (1941), The Robber Bridegroom (1942), Delta Wedding (1946), and The Ponder Heart (1954). Her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), is considered a classic text on becoming an artist. Because she lived in Jackson for most of her life, some people think Welty was a reclusive spinster, but the opposite is true. She traveled widely, often overseas, and had two great love affairs, one with mystery writer Ross Macdonald that remained unconsummated, but produced a legion of passionate letters. Plenty of people came to Jackson to see Welty, too, like novelist Henry Miller. Welty’s mother thought Miller’s writing was obscene, so she banned him from the house, but Welty met him, anyway. She didn’t like him much, though. She called him “the dullest man I ever saw in my life. He wasn’t interested in anything outside himself.” William Faulkner was a fan of her writing, too. He once sent her a letter that said, “You’re doing all right.”
It's the birthday of Thomas Jefferson (books by this author) born in Albemarle County in Virginia in 1743, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, as well as countless pieces of legislation, reports, notes, letters, essays, and even books on farming and gardening. He was also famously well-read and a great lover of books; his personal library was the largest private collection in the United States — 6,487 volumes on history, philosophy, and fine arts — when he sold it to Congress after the British burned down the Library of Congress. (The lost library was less than half the size of Jefferson's.)
Today is the birthday of Clara Beyer, born in Middletown, California (1892). She was an American labor lawyer and contemporary of Eleanor Roosevelt who campaigned against child labor and for minimum wage.
Beyer served as an adviser to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins during the Roosevelt administration, and together with Perkins — and another colleague, Molly Dewson — helped to establish the Social Security Act (1935).
Beyer was an outspoken proponent of women’s issues, and she surrounded herself with influential women, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in a social circle that one columnist called the “Ladies Brain Trust.”
At one point, Beyer was embedded in Washington, D.C., as a researcher studying the wages offered to working women in the area. She discovered that women in the city were consistently receiving less than $16 a week, and sometimes less than $9. She helped to establish a new $16.50 weekly minimum pay, which at that point was the highest minimum wage in the country. In today’s wages, $9 weekly would be equivalent to around $4/hour, and $16.50 around $7.50 an hour.
She remained a foremost expert in World War I-era labor law until her death in 1990, just two years shy of 100.
It's the birthday of Irish poet Seamus Heaney (books by this author), born in Castledawson, Northern Ireland (1939). Heaney began publishing poems in the 1960s about his childhood memories of ordinary things, like potatoes and bullfrogs. He received a letter from the editor of Faber & Faber asking if he’d like to publish a collection. Faber & Faber had published T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Robert Lowell, and Heaney said, “Getting that letter was like getting a letter from God the Father.” That first collection was Death of a Naturalist (1966) and it made his name as a poet.