From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flow’rs in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
“Sonnet 98” by William Shakespeare. Public Domain. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of playwright August Wilson (books by this author), born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). He was raised by his black mother in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. His namesake father — a white German baker — was barely part of his life. When his mother remarried and the family moved to a white suburb, Wilson was the subject of racist bullying by his classmates. The final straw came when one of his teachers insisted he must have plagiarized a long essay he wrote on Napoleon, and at the age of 15, he dropped out of school completely. Rather than attend school, he got up each morning and headed to Carnegie Library, where he read obsessively. He was such a devoted reader that the library eventually awarded him an honorary high school diploma. When he wasn’t reading, he worked odd jobs and hung around diners or street corners, listening to stories.
He remembers the day he became a writer: April 1, 1965. He was 20 years old, and his sister paid him $20 to write her a term paper about Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. He took the money and bought a typewriter. The first thing he wanted to type was his name. Instead of his birth name — Frederick Kittel — he chose August (his middle name) and Wilson (his mother’s maiden name). Then he began to write. He wrote mostly poetry, but also some drama. He said: “When I first started writing plays I couldn’t write good dialogue because I didn’t respect how black people talked. I thought that in order to make art out of their dialogue I had to change it, make it into something different. Once I learned to value and respect my characters, I could really hear them. I let them start talking. The important thing is not to censor them. What they are talking about may not seem to have anything to do with what you as a writer are writing about but it does.”
In 1978, Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where a friend got him a job writing educational pieces for a science museum. Soon he received a fellowship from the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, which allowed him to quit his job and focus on writing. He said that he liked the Twin Cities, and his later home of Seattle, precisely because they were cold, Scandinavian cities. They gave him the perspective he needed to reflect on his life back in Pittsburgh. He said: “Like most people, I have this sort of love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh. This is my home and at times I miss it and find it tremendously exciting, and other times I want to catch the first thing out that has wheels.”
He wrote what he considered his first real play: Jitney (1979), set in a taxi company in 1970s Pittsburgh. He submitted it to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference, but it was rejected. He resubmitted it, but it was rejected again, as were the next three plays he submitted after that. Finally they accepted Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), set in 1920s Chicago during one of Ma Rainey’s recording sessions. At the O’Neill Theater, he met the director Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale Drama School, and the two men formed a close partnership — Richards went on to direct six of Wilson’s plays, beginning in workshop and continuing all the way to Broadway.
Wilson eventually wrote 10 plays, called the Pittsburgh Cycle or Century Cycle, chronicling the black American experience over the course of the 20th century. Each play takes place in a different decade, and nine of the 10 plays are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. They include Gem of the Ocean (2003), Fences (1985), The Piano Lesson (1987), and Radio Golf (2005).
He said: “Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”
On this day in 1667, the poet John Milton (books by this author) sold the copyright for his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, for 10 pounds. Milton had championed the cause of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliament over the king during the English Civil War, and published a series of radical pamphlets in support of such things as Puritanism, freedom of the press, divorce on the basis of incompatibility, and the execution of King Charles I. With the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the Commonwealth, Milton was named Secretary of Foreign Tongues, and though he eventually lost his eyesight, he was able to carry out his duties with the help of aides like fellow poet Andrew Marvell.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Milton was imprisoned as a traitor and stripped of his property. He was soon released, but was now impoverished as well as completely blind, and he spent the rest of his life secluded in a cottage in Buckinghamshire. This is where he dictated Paradise Lost —an epic poem about the Fall of Man, with Satan as a kind of antihero — and its sequel, Paradise Regained, about the temptation of Christ.
Today is the birthday of writer, philosopher, and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft (books by this author), born in London in 1759. Her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the earliest books of feminist philosophy; in it, she argues that it is lack of access to education, not any inherent flaw, that makes women seem inferior to men. She argued that women should be taught to be rational, rather than ornamental, beings and that they should be given skills to help them support themselves in widowhood so that they need never marry out of financial necessity.
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 he 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 over 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!”