The Writer's Almanac from Friday, November 24, 2017
The Writer's Almanac from Friday, November 24, 2017
“Couch on the Beach” by Catherine Abbey Hodges from Instead of Sadness. © Gunpowder Press, 2014.
We don’t know exactly when — or even where — he was born, but today is celebrated by many as the birthday of African-American composer and pianist Scott Joplin, who was born sometime in 1867 or 1868. He first appeared in the public record on the 1870 census, where he was listed as a “two-year-old child” in northeastern Texas. His family moved to Texarkana sometime before 1880, and his mother went to work for a white family. It’s possible that that was young Joplin’s first exposure to a piano. He had a knack for the instrument, and perfect pitch, so a local music teacher named Julius Weiss gave him lessons and taught him about European opera and classical music. He was listed as a member of a minstrel troupe in Texarkana in 1891. He played cornet at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and formed his own band in Sedalia, Missouri. In 1895, he performed with a vocal group in Syracuse, New York. In between road trips, he played piano gigs in Sedalia, gave music lessons, and attended music classes at George R. Smith College.
He was also composing by this time. He published two marches and a waltz in 1896, and in 1898 he tried to sell some original piano compositions in the ragtime genre. The name came from the syncopated melodies — called “ragged time” — of this musical style, which was reaching the peak of its popularity at the turn of the century. In 1899, Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag,” and he earned a one-cent royalty on every sale. It became the most popular of all ragtime compositions, and earned him a modest but steady income for the rest of his life.
Joplin’s real ambition was to compose an opera. In 1903, he filed a copyright application for an opera called A Guest of Honor. According to newspaper commentary, the opera was about the time President Theodore Roosevelt invited African-American author and educator Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House in 1901. The invitation polarized the American public, but Joplin admired Roosevelt for extending the invitation. He formed an opera company and began rehearsals in Sedalia. He took the opera on the road, but early in the tour the box office receipts were stolen. Without the money to pay the touring expenses or the company payroll, the tour ended; what’s more, all of Joplin’s possessions — including the score — were confiscated to pay the boarding house where the troupe was staying. The score to A Guest of Honor had not yet been filed with the Library of Congress, and no copies have survived.
Joplin continued composing and publishing music after the setback, but his financial situation never fully recovered. He worked for several years on a new opera, which he called Treemonisha, about a woman who leads her community out of the ignorance and superstition that are holding them down. He went to New York in 1907 to try to find backers. He finally published the opera himself, and a prominent music magazine reviewed the score and libretto, calling it the most American opera ever composed. Joplin tried for the next four years, but in spite of the glowing review, he was never able to present a fully staged production. He died in a mental institution in 1917, debilitated by the mental and physical effects of syphilis.
Treemonisha was finally staged on Broadway in 1972, and a revival of interest in ragtime prompted director George Roy Hill to use some of Joplin’s compositions in his movie The Sting (1973). In 1976, the Pulitzer Prize committee recognized Joplin with a posthumous award for his contribution to American music.
It’s the birthday of author and political activist Arundhati Roy, born in Meghalaya, India (1961). She’s best known for her first novel, The God of Small Things (1997), which she wrote when she was 37 years old. She said, “When people used to ask me how long it took to write The God of Small Things, I would say 37 years, because to me, a novel is not a product.” It went on to sell more 8 million copies worldwide and she gives most of her royalty money away.
It took her more than 20 years to write her next book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), about a transgender woman, known in India as a hijra. About writing, Roy once said: “To me there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves.”
Roy’s father was a Bengali Hindu and her mother a Syrian Christian. She left home at 17 and began working at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, making no money and hiring a bicycle for one rupee a day to get to work. Over the years, Roy has campaigned against nuclear weapons, lived with Indian Maoists in the jungle, and exposed government corruption, inequality, and environmental destruction. She’s been thrown in jail and accused of sedition. She said: “The right wing, the mobs, vigilantes, they are there at every meeting, threatening violence, threatening all kinds of things. I still go to speak, to Punjab, in Orissa, wherever; I’m not really that writer who is sequestered somewhere, and I live perhaps alone but in the heart of the crowd.”
Arundhati Roy once said, “There’s no voiceless, there’s only the deliberately silenced, you know, or the purposely unheard.”
It’s the birthday of the writer Laurence Sterne, born in Clonmel, Ireland, in 1713. Sterne was one of seven children, and his parents were fairly poor. His father lacked ruthlessness and a mind for business, and was, as Sterne observed, “so innocent in his own intentions, that he suspected no one; so that you might have cheated him ten times in a day, if nine had not been sufficient for your purpose.”
Sterne’s parents sent him to live with his uncle and attend school. Sterne took advantage of the freshly whitewashed schoolhouse ceiling and an unattended ladder to write in large letters “LAU. STERNE.”
Despite his jokester tendencies, he became a clergyman and focused on his church career for 20 years, preaching at multiple parishes. At the same time, he constantly battled tuberculosis and endured an unhappy marriage. His wife was described by a cousin as a woman whose “many virtues [...] stand like quills upon the fretful porcupine.”
While still preaching, Sterne turned to writing fiction. In 1760, he published his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which became wildly popular and rocketed Sterne out of relative squalor and obscurity.
The book was a self-conscious pseudo-autobiography in which the author is so prone to digression that he fails to tell any straightforward story. These digressions, according to Sterne, were the meat of the book. Heretical, ironic humor like that displayed by gentleman Tristram Shandy has proven popular throughout the ages, and in addition to being a wild success among his contemporaries, Sterne’s novel influenced 20th-century avant-garde literature and has been cited as significant by authors such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Salman Rushdie, Marcel Proust, Italo Calvino, and Milan Kundera.
Sterne’s contemporary readers were often shocked to learn that a clergyman had written a novel rife with dirty jokes — including a description of the narrator’s own conception. Sterne’s good friend John Hall-Stevenson was infamous for writing anti-clerical satire, drinking, and gambling, and this friendship further confounded those who tried to understand Sterne as a pious man.
While Sterne’s fame grew alongside public outcry, the author acknowledged the contradictions of his good fortune, remarking: “’Tis no extravagant arithmetic to say, that for every ten jokes, thou has got an hundred enemies.” But the playfulness Sterne indulged in his writing was never snuffed by the darker realities of his existence: an estranged family, a grim marriage, and poor health. Sterne said, “What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything.”
Today is the birthday of the philosopher Benedict Spinoza, born in Amsterdam in 1632. Spinoza was the descendent of Portuguese Jews who immigrated to the Netherlands seeking religious tolerance. Young Spinoza studied Hebrew, the Old Testament, the Talmud, and Cabala’s traditions of mysticism and miracle. Fluent in five languages, Spinoza wrote in Latin, which he learned from Christian teachers who introduced the young scholar to mathematics and philosophy.
By age 24, Spinoza had developed his own ideas. He asserted that everything in the universe was made from the same divine substance, possessing infinite characteristics. He defined God and the laws of nature as one and the same, a part of this infinite substance. All of this was too far-flung from the dominant vision of an almighty, singular godhead for Spinoza’s religious contemporaries to tolerate, and Spinoza was excommunicated.
This did not deter him from his intellectual pursuits. He said, “Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.” He left Amsterdam and supported himself grinding lenses while writing books of philosophy. He lived in solitude and studied the work of Bacon, Boyle, Descartes, and Huygens. Spinoza published three books while he was alive, though more of his writings were published later by friends. The only book that named him as an author was Principles of the Philosophy of René Descartes (1663). He withheld much of his work because he feared retribution from a group of theologians who had publicly accused him of atheism.
For more than a century after his death, Spinoza’s work was widely considered heretical and atheistic. But toward the end of the 18th century, his ideas underwent a revival. Thinkers called him “holy” and “a man intoxicated with the divine,” and he influenced philosophers such as Goethe, Herder, Lessing, and Novalis. According to the philosopher Hegel, “to be a philosopher, one must first become a Spinozist.”
Spinoza said, “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.”
And, “If you want the future to be different from the present, study the past.”
It’s the birthday of Somali writer Nuruddin Farah (1945). He’s written novels, plays, and essays, mostly about — and set in — his home country because, he says, he’s trying to “keep my country alive by writing about it.” He was driven into exile by Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1972, after the publication of his novel The Naked Needle. The ongoing civil war in Somalia has claimed almost a million lives.
Farah’s mother was an oral poet, and his father was an interpreter for the British governor. He toggled between English, Amharic, Arabic, and Italian as a child, even using English textbooks and taking Qur’anic lessons. He became a bookworm after his brother introduced him to Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, and Victor Hugo when he was a child. He once said, “Books were hard to come by where I grew up.”
He was in his early 20s when he fell in love with Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House and decided to write his first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), about the life of a nomadic 19-year-old woman fleeing a forced marriage. Farah writes often about the persecution of Somali women. He says: “My mother was a minor poet. If she had not delivered 10 children and raised them, she might have become a great poet. Our clothes would be washed and ironed by women; we were given the best parts of the food, the meat; women ate the leftovers; the list is endless. And yet in a country like Somalia, the ruin is caused by men. As a generic male, I am part of the problem.”
Two years later, after he published A Naked Needle, he was sentenced to death and exiled by Siad Barre for 22 years. His brother told him never to return. Farah said: “The country died inside me, and I carried it, for a long time, like a woman with a dead baby. It became the neurosis from which I write.”
Somalia, Nuruddin Farah says, “is full of stories. We say, ‘one sick person; a hundred doctors.’ Somalia is a sick country and everyone has an opinion. Mine is one version; in a civil war, there are millions.”
Nuruddin Farah’s books include Knots (2007), Secrets: A Novel (2014), and Hiding in Plain Sight (2014). Farah’s sister was killed in a car bombing. In the beginning of Hiding in Plain Sight, he writes: “Death in Somalia seldom bothers to announce its arrival. In fact, death calls with the arrogance of a guest confident of receiving a warm welcome at any time.”