On 26 February this year, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most popular poet America has ever had, turned 210. The lines from Longfellow everyone remembers, often without knowing who actually wrote them (“into each life a little rain must fall”; “Let us, then, be up and doing”; “Each thing in its place is best”), point to an author who wanted to help us live our lives, not exactly change them.
While reading recently British Library correspondence files relating to the poet Edwin Muir—the 130th anniversary of whose birth will be on 15 May this year—I was struck, as I have often been, by the important part played in his development as man and poet by his contact with the life of Europe—a continent that is currently high on the agenda of many of us with a possible British Brexit in view.
Certainly my oddest moment as a scholar of the biracial woman novelist Nella Larsen (1891–1964) was the day I ran across her in the guise of a pink-clad children’s cartoon character, profiled in the New York Times. The unusual name “Nella” drew my eye to Nella the Princess Knight, but as I read further, the character’s similarities to the literary figure multiplied. Like the novelist, Nick Jr’s new heroine has a black father, a white mother, and a baby sister, and she lives in a multiracial community.
On 8 May 1788, Edward Gibbon celebrated the publication of the final three volumes of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at a dinner given by his publisher Thomas Cadell. Gibbon (born 27 April 1737) was just 51; he had completed perhaps the greatest work of history ever written by an Englishman, and certainly the greatest history of what his contemporary David Hume called the “historical age,” and we think of as the Enlightenment.
Popular romance is often written to a formula. Our heroine falls for the attractions of the hero. Stuff gets in the way. They get through this and marry. We assume that they are happy thereafter. Most of the books published by Mills and Boon or Harlequin have some variation on this kind of narrative, centring on heartthrobs and happy endings.
Since the political earthquake of Trump’s election, preceded by the earth tremor of Brexit, the commentariat has been awash with declarations of the end of eras—of globalisation, of neoliberalism, of the post-World War II epoch of political stability and economic prosperity. As though to orientate ourselves in this brave new world, the search has been on for historical analogies, through whose lenses we might understand our present moment.
Come celebrate Mother Goose Day with us! On this holiday, which originated in the year 1987, we honor Mother Goose, the fictional author of a number of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Even though she’s an imaginary character, her societal impact is not. Through her fantastical stories, she’s reminded us of the moral implications of […]
In modern British and American popular culture, Halloween is the night most associated with the nocturnal activities of witches and the souls of the dead. But in much of Europe the 30 April or May Eve, otherwise known as Walpurgis Night, was another moment when spirits and witches were thought to roam abroad. The life and death of Saint Walpurga, who was born in Dorset, England, in the eight century, has nothing to do with witchcraft or magic, though.
Fake news is not only a phenomenon of post-truth politics in the Trump era. It’s as old as newspapers themselves—or as old, Robert Darnton suggests, as the scurrilous Anecdota of Procopius in sixth-century Byzantium. In England, the first great age of alternative facts was the later seventeenth century, when they clustered especially around crises of dynastic succession.
What would Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897), one of the most prolific of commentators on nineteenth-century society (98 novels; 50 or more short stories; 25 works of non-fiction, and over 300 essays) have made of the politics and social mores influencing events today? In particular how would she have reacted to the identity politics behind the plea for a hard Brexit, the current referendum stand-off between England and Scotland, and the triumph of Trump in the US presidential election?
Libraries often feel like magical places, the numerous books on every shelf holding the ability to transport their reader to new and wonderful worlds. In the words of Terry Pratchett: “They thought the Library was a dangerous place because of all the magical books…but what made it really one of the most dangerous places there could ever be was the simple fact that it was a library.”
William Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius (the great stoic philosopher and emperor) have more in common than you might think. They share a recorded birth-date, with Shakespeare baptized on 26 April 1564, and Marcus Aurelius born on 26 April 161 (Shakespeare’s actual birth date remains unknown, although he was baptised on 26 April 1564. His birth is traditionally observed and celebrated on 23 April, Saint George’s Day).
Born in 1905, Robert Penn Warren’s life spanned most of the twentieth century, and his work made him America’s foremost person of letters before his death in 1989. His literary prowess is evidenced by his many awards and honors that include three Pulitzer Prizes, one for fiction and two for poetry, so that Warren remains the only writer to have won them in these two major categories.
John Capgrave is one of the few medieval authors whose birthday we know. As he composed his universal history known as the Abbreviation of Chronicles, he recorded that on 21 April 1393, “the friar who made these annotations was born.” And lest this entry be overlooked amidst the doings of the powerful, he inserted his personal nota bene mark, a trefoil, beside it in the margin.
Some of the most startling expressions of misogyny over the last century have been directed at girls and young women enjoying themselves. By the 1900s women were reading novels in large quantities. Heavy, three-volume works of fiction were disappearing in favour of single volumes in light bindings: paper covers were beginning to sport colourful, inviting designs.
This January, Lemony Snicket’s first four critically acclaimed novels of the A Series of Unfortunate Events were adapted as a Netflix original series, starring Neil Patrick Harris. Although famously known as a book series built upon three children’s misery and misfortune, the stories do contain one consistent factor on which the kids can always rely: the library.