Midsummer trivia – part 1


Silk’s Post #135 — Midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere is a time for idylls. Reading on the beach under a floppy hat. Lounging in the cockpit of a boat. Setting off on an outdoor adventure. Floating in a pool. Playing lawn games. Catching a late sunset. Paddling a kayak. Puttering in the garden. Dining al fresco. Beachcombing. Sipping fancy drinks you wouldn’t touch in a more somber season. Watching fireworks. Strolling in a park. Swinging in a hammock.

The call of midsummer tempts even the most serious writer to abandon creation in favour of recreation. Surely, these complement each other.

But if you’re not holed up indoors pounding the keyboard while the sun shines and the rest of the world plays, you can, at least, recreate like a writer. Idle midsummer moments are perfect for giving your imagination a workout. Today’s daydreams are tomorrow’s killer plots. People-watching with a writer’s eye can spawn unforgettable characters. Whiling away a summer afternoon with a good book is never time wasted.

In the spirit of such genteel pursuits, here’s a very short collection of (slightly dark) trivia about writers and the writing life to add a bit of grit, amusement or amazement to your leisure time. If nothing else, you can impress your literary-minded friends with your arcane knowledge.

How the New York Times Changed the book publishing industry!
Imagine a world without the New York Times Bestseller List. The publishing industry was very different in 1942, the year this list was born with little hoopla. It is now considered to have signalled a revolution in the industry that once was viewed as “a gentleman’s profession”, transforming publishing into a multimillion dollar marketplace in which books are often treated (and valued) more as commodities than works of art. Not counting the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (whose dominance of the charts literally spawned a new, separate NYT children’s bestseller list in 2000), the title of top fiction author on the list – both in terms of number of weeks (790) and titles (65) – goes to Danielle Steel (both records are as of 2009, the latest list I found). Of course, the whole concept of “bestsellers” and how they’re calculated is perennially controversial (see my post on What you never knew about bestsellers). However, what’s undeniable is that every author and agent alive lusts for a position on the New York Times Bestseller List. End of story. (Sources: Defining Moments in Books, Cassell, 2007; NYT Best Seller List).

The 1820s – bad news comes in threes for English romantic poetry
Our baby boom generation witnessed our own eerie (if predictable) series of deaths of our cultural icons in the 1960s. Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, all left their musical mark in their brief periods of stardom and were dead before they turned 30. For English romantic poetry lovers of the 1820s, the bad news also came as a triptych. First to go was John Keats in 1821, the victim of tuberculosis at the age of 26. A physician who had treated his own dying brother for the disease, he knew what was coming when his symptoms arose, and spent his final three years writing furiously. In 1822, it was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s turn to cast off his mortal coil, ironically last seen “reclining on the deck of his boat, Don Juan, reading a copy of Keats’s latest poems” just before he drowned off the Italian coast in a freak storm. The controversial Lord Byron lived to see 36, but was apparently plagued by deformities, health issues and a monstrous sexual appetite before he succumbed to complications from malaria in 1824. (Source: Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody, Harper & Row, 1989).

A dozen authors who wrote bestsellers while in prison
Source: Inspired by The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace (Bantam, 1977 – still one of my favourite books to get lost in).

1. Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) — began writing his epic poem Henriade while doing an 11-month hitch in the Bastille, Paris, for writing poems against the regent in 1717.

2. John Bunyan — wrote most of Pilgram’s Progress (published in 1678 and rated in a 1950 survey as the most boring classic ever written) while imprisoned in Bedford County Jail for 11 years after holding Puritan services that offended the Church of England.

3. Miguel de Cervantes — while jailed in 1597 in Seville, Spain for “deficits as a naval quartermaster”, he began writing Don Quixote.

4. John Cleland — worked his way out of debtors’ prison at Newgate, London through the  unique means of producing a pornographic novel which a publisher had offered him 20 guineas to write; thus was created Fanny Hill, or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in 1750.

5. Daniel Defoe — while serving an indefinite sentence for seditious libel in Newgate Prison, London (which seems to have seen it share of naughty writers), he wrote Hymn to the Pillory in 1703 (Robinson Crusoe didn’t come along until 1719).

6. Adolf Hitler — while “writer” is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Hitler, it was his work Mein Kampf that inspired the Nazi movement and brought him to power; the book was begun in 1923 while he was serving a prison sentence in the fortress of Landsberg for organizing the failed Beer Hall Putsch, and obviously he was in a very bad mood.

7. Richard Lovelace — jailed in 1642 for his royalist activities, this Cavalier adventurer penned the poem “To Althea from Prison” during his 7-week stint in the Gatehouse at Westminster, which contained these famous words: “Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage;/Minds innocent and quiet take/That for an hermitage.”

8. Jawaharlal Nehru — served a total of 10 years in a British jail between 1921 and 1945 for his continuing leadership of India’s fight for independence, during which time he wrote Glimpses of World History. By 1947, he was prime minister of the new nation for which he had written a Declaration of Independence in 1929.

9. Marco Polo — whose famous Travels of Marco Polo memoir was dictated to a fellow inmate while he served time as a prisoner of war (between Venice and Genoa) after his capture in 1298.

10. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) — convicted in 1898 of embezzlement of funds from a bank in Austin, TX while working as a teller, some of his best loved short stories were written in his cell while in federal prison in Columbus, OH. Perhaps appropriately, he’s considered the master of the surprise ending, engineering his own reversal of fortune when he went on to become a prolific and successful short story writer in New York, where he penned 381 works.

11. Sir Walter Raleigh — served 13 years in the Tower of London beginning in 1603 for treason after the death of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I. Always claiming his innocence of the crime, some might consider his sentence poetic justice for popularizing the new craze, tobacco, which he brought to England from the New World. In any case, he wrote his History of the World while in the tower.

12. Oscar Wilde — imprisoned in Reading Jail for homosexuality in 1895, he wrote De Profundis and Apologia during his two years of incarceration and hard labour, emerging a broken man who died a pauper three years after his release, at the age of 46.

Ah, too bad to end this on such a tragic note. Poor Oscar. He certainly would have had a better time of it today, virtually anywhere in the civilized world.

If you liked this, I have more trivia ready to go next week. And after that, we all get back to work, writing our butts off.

Happy summer!

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