Standing up on lifted, folded rock
looking out and down—
The creek falls to a far valley.
hills beyond that
facing, half-forested, dry
strong wind in the
stiff glittering needle clusters
of the pine—their brown
round trunk bodies
rustling trembling limbs and twigs
This living flowing land
is all there is, forever
We are it
it sings through us—
We could live on this Earth
without clothes or tools!
“By Frazier Creek Falls” by Gary Snyder from No Nature. © Pantheon Books, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of the playwright sometimes described as “the Irish Chekhov.” That’s Brian Friel (books by this author), born near Omagh in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland (1929). He’s the author of the Tony Award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), as well as numerous other plays, including The Freedom of the City (1973), Faith Healer (1980), and Wonderful Tennessee (1993).
He published his first short story, “The Child,” in 1952. He was working as a mathematics teacher when he first began writing radio plays for the BBC. He also wrote some short stories that were published in The New Yorker; the magazine paid so well that he found he could live pretty well by selling only three stories a year. He also wrote a few plays that were staged in Dublin. He decided to pursue a theatrical career after he spent six months observing rehearsals at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater in 1963; he said the experience gave him “courage and daring to attempt things.” A year later, his play Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) opened to great reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
Translations (1980) is one of his most controversial plays. It’s about the mapping of Ireland for the Ordnance Survey in the 1800s; the English mapmakers set about to translate Irish place names from Gaelic into English. The play sparked many debates about colonialism and cultural identity, but Friel insisted that that was not his intent. “The play has to do with language and only language. And if it becomes overwhelmed by that political element, it is lost,” he insisted. He didn’t trust directors who wanted to play with the text of his plays. “I want a director to call rehearsals, to make sure the actors are there on time, and to get them to speak their lines clearly and distinctly,” he said. “I’ve no interest whatever in his concept or interpretation.”
Friel died just last October, in his home in County Donegal. He was 86.
It’s the birthday of the novelist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (books by this author), born in Paris, France (1908). She entered the Sorbonne, and it was there that she met another philosophy student, Jean-Paul Sartre. He was five feet tall, had lost his sight in one eye, wore baggy clothes, and seemed to have no interest in hygiene. But he loved to talk, and he was both funny and brilliant. Beauvoir later said, “It was the first time in my life that I felt intellectually inferior to anyone else.”
Sartre was equally impressed by Beauvoir’s intellect, especially when she finished her philosophy degree in one year, after it had taken Sartre three years to finish his own. She was the youngest person to receive the degree in French history. They fell in love, but instead of getting married, they decided to form a pact. They would both have affairs with other people, but they would tell each other everything. That basic arrangement of their relationship would last for the rest of their lives.
They didn’t even live together, but every evening they would meet in a café and show each other what they were working on. They each edited the other’s work, and they gave each other ideas, and together they helped formulate the school of philosophy known as existentialism, which was the idea that human beings should consider themselves completely free to define their own existence, without regard to religion, culture, or society.
Sartre wrote his book Being and Nothingness (1943) about the new philosophy, and Beauvoir followed with a book of ethics based on the same ideas, called The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947). But one of her most famous books was inspired by an offhand comment Sartre made one day. They were talking about the differences in the ways men and women were treated, and Beauvoir claimed that she’d never been adversely affected by this treatment. Sartre said, “All the same, you weren’t brought up the same way a boy would have been; you should look into it further.”
So Beauvoir did look into it. She spent weeks at the National Library in Paris researching the way women had been treated throughout history. The result was her book The Second Sex (1949), in which she wrote, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” It was one of the first comprehensive arguments that the difference between the sexes was the result of culture, not nature, and it helped found the modern feminist movement.
Beauvoir went on to write many more books, including several volumes of autobiography, such as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), about her childhood, and The Prime of Life (1960), which tells the story of her relationship with Sartre and the years they spent together during World War II.
It’s the birthday of adventurer and author Richard Halliburton (books by this author), born in Brownsville, Tennessee (1900), the son of a civil engineer. He went to a prestigious New Jersey prep school, edited the student newspaper at Princeton, and then set off on the dizzying array of adventures around the world that would make him famous. To raise funds for these adventures, he wrote books about them. Many of his books became best-sellers.
On one of his first major trips, he traveled down the Nile River, headed over to India and Thailand, and climbed Mount Fiji; he wrote about these escapades in The Royal Road to Romance (1925). On one trip, he borrowed an elephant from the Paris zoo and rode it across the Alps. On another trip, he decided to follow the ancient path of Ulysses around the Mediterranean Sea; he wrote about these wanderings in The Glorious Adventure (1927). His next big adventure was around Central and South America, where he swam across the Panama Canal. Tolls for crossing the Panama Canal are assessed based on weight, and ships routinely pay more than $100,000 for a single crossing. But since Halliburton swam across, his toll was just 37 cents — a record for the lowest toll ever. He wrote about his Latin American adventures in New Worlds to Conquer (1929).
On Christmas Day 1930, he set out on another one of his epic adventures. It was a trip around the world in an open-cockpit biplane. It would last 18 months and include stops in 34 countries, and it began in Los Angeles. There was a stop in New York, and then the British Isles, France, Gibraltar, Morocco. He and his co-pilot flew across the Sahara, made a stop in Timbuktu, spent time in Algeria, and landed in Persia (now Iran). They made a stop in Iraq, where they gave a joyride to the school-aged Iraqi prince, flying him up over his school’s playground.
They headed over to India, where their crimson red plane did aerial stunts over the Taj Mahal. Then they flew to Mount Everest, taking the first aerial photographs of the summit. They flew to the Philippines. Once there, they crated the plane, put it on a ship, and rode with it back across the Pacific, landing in San Francisco. From there they flew back to L.A. so that they could complete their journey at its starting place.
Halliburton wrote a book about the aerial expedition called The Flying Carpet (1932), which was also the name of the plane. The book sold phenomenally well even though it was published in the midst of the Great Depression.
Once, when he was young, he had announced to his father — an engineer — that he himself planned at all costs to avoid living an “even-tenored” life. He said: “When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. [...] And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills — any emotion that any human ever had — and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.”
He was spared a common death in bed. In 1939, he attempted to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco. It was 75 feet long, had a dragon painted on it, and was run by a diesel engine. The idea was to land at Treasure Island, in the Bay between San Francisco and Oakland. It was bad from the beginning. He was caught in a typhoon near Midway Island a few weeks after setting out. He sent out a couple messages: “Wish you were here instead of me” and “Southerly gale. Heavy Rain Squalls. High sea [...] lee rail under water.” He was never heard from again and was presumed dead shortly later, age 39.
While he was gallivanting about, he wrote a lot of letters home to his parents. Afterward, his dad collected and published them as Richard Halliburton: His Story of His Life’s Adventure, as Told in Letters to His Mother and Father (1940). His travel writings are also collected in Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels (1941).