The Writer's Almanac from Tuesday, November 21, 2017
The Writer's Almanac from Tuesday, November 21, 2017
“But I, Too, Want to Be a Poet” by Fanny Howe from Selected Poems of Fanny Howe. © University of California Press Books, 2000.
The agreement known as the Dayton Accords was reached on this date in 1995. The presidents of three rival Balkan states — Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia — met at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, to try to hammer out an agreement to end the war in Bosnia. At that point, the war had cost 250,000 lives and displaced more than 2 million people. It grew out of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs, backed by Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav army, targeted Bosnian Muslims and Croatian civilians in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”: an attempt to drive them out of the territory by any means necessary, including murder, rape, and torture.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and negotiator Richard Holbrooke led the conference, with participation by other European officials. The conference was held in Dayton to get the presidents out of their comfort zones. It was also chosen because it didn’t have a strong international media presence, which would encourage all parties involved to negotiate face-to-face rather than resorting to public media statements. The meeting convened for the first time on November 1, 1995, and was initially approved three weeks later. Bosnia was preserved as a state, but divided up into two parts: the Bosnian Serb republic and the Bosniak-Croat federation.
Less than a week after the agreement was signed, President Bill Clinton made the case for United States military involvement in implementing the peace plan. Milošević was charged with war crimes in 2002, but died of natural causes in 2006, before the trial was concluded.
Today is the birthday of French writer, historian, and philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume, Voltaire, born in Paris (1694). Voltaire’s works regularly skewered politics and religion, and he was prolific in nearly every literary way, writing plays, essays, novels, and poetry. He’s best known for his satire Candide (1759), a breezy, trenchant treatise on humanity and philosophy, which blended fiction with real historical events like the Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years War.
During his lifetime, Voltaire wrote nearly 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. His prolific output may have been the result of copious cups of caffeine: he’s said to have enjoyed nearly 40 cups of coffee every day, all while in bed, dictating his writing to secretaries. He decided to call himself “Voltaire” after a stint in the Bastille in 1718. It’s an anagram of AROVET LI, the Latinized spelling of his surname, and the first letters of the phrase le jeune, which means “the young.”
Voltaire was an excellent student, taught by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris and quickly learning Latin and Greek, as well as Italian, English, and Spanish. He disdained his education, though, claiming he learned mostly “Latin and the Stupidities.” When he was done with school, he decided he wanted to be a writer, even though his father wanted him to be a lawyer. Voltaire spent much of time in Paris pretending to be a notary, but really writing a lot of poetry. His father discovered the ruse and sent him to study law in Normandy, where Voltaire, witty and dashing, quickly became the darling of aristocratic families and continued writing.
During his lifetime, many of Voltaire’s works were censored, and some even burned. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for a year after writing scandalous poetry and mocking Louis XIV, he was exiled to both England and Tulle, and he somehow managed to amass a healthy fortune by discovering a loophole in the French national lottery. The government issued large prizes for the contest each month, but an error in calculation meant that the payouts were larger than the value of all the tickets in circulation. Voltaire was able to repeatedly corner the market and amass huge winnings. He ended up with nearly half a million francs, which left him fairly well-off for the rest of his life.
Voltaire bought a large house in Geneva, where he set about cultivating a beautiful garden. His letters of the time document his shopping lists, in which he looked for things like green olive oil, eight wing armchairs, rosewood commodes, and the best coffee. He hired master gardeners, servants, and 20 workmen to help paint the trellises green and the tiles red. This is where he also wrote Candide.
Voltaire’s works include The Henriade (1723), Oedipus (1718), Zaire (1732), and Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756). On his deathbed, it is said that he murmured, “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.”
Today is the birthday of American playwright Tina Howe (1937). She was born to a very literary, upper-class family in New York City. Her grandfather, Mark Anthony de Wolfe Howe, won the Pulitzer for biography. Her father was a news writer, broadcaster, and historian. And her aunt, Helen Howe, was a monologist and novelist.
After her BA at Sarah Lawrence, she went to the Sorbonne to study philosophy, but got distracted by writing plays. While in Paris, she watched a performance of Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, which changed her life. She said: “It was as if I’d been hit in the head with a thunderbolt […] It made me realize that my goal in life was to bring the same sort of joy and anarchy and fizz and helium to female rituals that he was bringing to male rituals.”
When she came back to the Sates, she taught at a high school in Maine, where she agreed to take the job on condition that the drama department produce her plays. Her first play was panned by the critics (the ending had one of the characters dive naked into a wedding cake). Her second play, Museum, had 18 actors playing 44 characters and brought her attention as an avant-garde playwright. Howe’s plays have been called “surrealist comedies of manners”; she shows very proper, upper class people trying their best to follow social norms, even as circumstances become more and more ridiculous.
She uses the settings in her plays to make the story more surreal. For example, one character jumps on a trampoline until they almost go out of sight of the audience. In another play, giant vegetables grow inside of a house. Howe says: “I am a visual artist. I often start with a set because I believe a play should astonish and amuse the audience. The public must be shown something totally familiar, like a suburban home, and yet detect in it an element of strangeness, something threatening.”
Howe has won an Obie Award and grants from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. She’s written English translations of Ionesco’s plays and taught playwriting at Hunter College and NYU. She lives in New York and today she turns 80 years old.
Today is the birthday of American novelist Mary Johnston, born in Buchanan, Virginia (1870). She was the first woman to top the best-seller list in the U.S. Her work was so popular that she supported herself throughout her life from her writing alone, and never married. Her book To Have and To Hold was the best-selling novel in the U.S. in 1900, and three of her novels were adapted to silent films.
Johnston wrote historical novels that often centered on love stories. Her novel on the Civil War, The Long Roll, told the story of Stonewall Jackson and the troops that fought under him. Although her characterization of General Jackson seems pretty sympathetic to modern readers, Stonewall Jackson’s widow published an editorial in the New York Times denouncing the book. She said that her late husband was presented as cold and eccentric, and took issue with Johnston’s claim that he liked “sucking lemons.” Although Johnston did speak out against lynching, her view of the confederacy was typical of other Southerners. Her father was a Civil War veteran and she was a friend of Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone with the Wind. Mitchell once said, “I hesitate to write about the South after having read Mary Johnston.”
Her book Hagar is considered one of the first feminist novels, and a lot of people stopped reading her work after she published it. She supported the women’s suffrage movement and founded the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. She argued before state legislatures in Virginia and Tennessee as part of her activism.
Johnston died at 65 at her home in Warm Springs, Virginia, which is now recognized as a historic site. Johnston’s novels are not widely read or studied now, but she’s remembered for being a hugely popular woman writer at a time when women were much less likely to get published.
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