Posts Tagged ‘writers’

Women Authors of the Heian Period

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

March is Women’s History Month, and today we’re going to revel in the writing of Japanese women from the Heian period.

Women have been writers as long as writing has existed, but their work often has been lost or neglected. However, while the literary professions were generally dominated by men, it was women who were the driving force behind the Golden Age of Japanese literature, and their work has come down to us through the centuries.

The Heian period (794-1185) is known for its memoirs, autobiographical narratives, and love poems. The masters of Heian literature were women of the Imperial Court and members of the aristocracy who offer intimate glimpses into the lives of the powerful and the passionate.

The writer known to us as the “Mother of Michitsuna” wrote the Kagerō Diary, the first of the long tradition of diary texts written by women.

Lady Murasaki (the pseudonym of Murasaki Shikibu) wrote The Tale of Genji, often referred to as the first novel. It is remarkable for its philosophical insight into the world of the Japanese court.

Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book fascinated her readers with its behind-the-scenes account of court life. It is noteworthy for its gossipy observations and its exhaustive, eclectic lists.

Izumi Shikibu was one of the greatest Japanese poets, and one of only five women included Fujiwara no Kintō’s anthology, Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry. Her love poetry was so passionate, rumors flew about her robust love life, some of which were true.

Akazome Emon, a contemporary of all three writers above, was a poet and historian much admired by Murasaki Shikibu.

There are several theories about why were women so prominent in Heian literature. In this era of great respect for literature and the arts, families who educated their daughters were more likely to marry them off to men with access to power. While educated men wrote in Classical Chinese, their counterparts were free to write in their own language – the Japanese vernacular that was becoming more and more popular.

Professor Lynne Miyake goes into more detail in this interesting interview.

So let’s remember these remarkable women, whose own talents and industry fitted them for a place and time that recognized their merits and gave beauty and brilliance to their own time and ours.

Why is that so hard again?

Let Us Cultivate Our Garden

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

It’s winter here at The Unemployed Philosophers Guild in Brooklyn, New York. Though we have the companionship of puppets and the days grow imperceptibly longer, we find ourselves in need of reprieve from the grey and gritty season to keep us from climbing the walls of our Ivory Tower.

Turn your gaze with us westward…

The marvel that rescues us from our wintry doldrums today is the West Bloomfield High School Literary Garden.

West Bloomfield High School (go, Lakers!) in West Bloomfield, Michigan, is home base for English teacher Jennifer McQuillan, whose windowless classroom challenged her to devise ingenious ways to teach Emerson and Thoreau and Dickinson and all they had to communicate about Nature and the great outdoors.

After visiting authors’ homes and graves on the East Coast, Ms. McQuillan struck on the idea that flourishes today as the West Bloomfield High School Literary Garden.

Two years later, Ms. McQuillan’s garden honors nearly 40 writers, many with a plant grown from a clipping from their home, grave, or museum.

There are lilacs from the birthplace of Walt Whitman (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”), and bloody butcher corn from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home.

The garden features a pear tree in honor of Zora Neale Huston (and her most famous work,Their Eyes Were Watching God), cones from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own Southern Magnolia, hydrangeas from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cape Cod home, and more and more…

All of the clippings and seedlings arrive with the blessing of the estates or associations connected to the authors – or the authors, themselves. For instance, Joyce Carol Oates recently noted that shasta daisies are her favorite, and Rita Dove has asked McQuillan to plant evening primroses.

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library has funded the Literary Garden, and there have been donations and prizes from the West Bloomfield Educational Foundation and Carton2Garden, as well as donations from garden and lit fans.

Of course, Ms. McQuillan and her students aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. All the planting and pruning, composting and seeding help students to appreciate the context of the authors’ lives. Students can touch and smell and gaze on the same plants these writers wrote about and lived among as they first encounter these authors’ works. The students also help reach out to writers to procure more specimens for the garden.

(Of course, the Guild was honored to find out Ms. McQuillan posts our Magnetic Personalities in the Literary Garden among her plants! How cool is that?)

You can read and see more about the inspiring work of Jennifer McQuillan and her students on her blog, Walden at West Bloomfield – Creating a Literary Garden and you can contribute to their work by purchasing a tax-free tile here or donating supplies they need: hand tools, a lawnmower, garden gloves, rakes and shovels, and an automatic sprinkler system.

Well, looks as if it’s time we all got back to work. It’s all first drafts today. To paraphrase the great Ernest Hemingway, the first draft of anything is… compost – and what better way to celebrate gardens, unless…

Why not start your own Literary Garden today?

Zora Neale Hurston and her pear blossom.

Emily Dickinson and daylilies.

Sylvia Plath and red tulips.

Hemingway with mint from Horton Bay, MI, which Hemingway mentions in his Nick Adams stories.

Vonnegut with hydrangeas from his Cape Cod home.

How Did We Lose Zora Neale Hurston?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

Today, Zora Neale Hurston has a grave marker. But it wasn’t always so.

Hurston is best known as one of the pantheon of the Harlem Renaissance. But though she was born in Alabama, schooled in Jacksonville and Baltimore, attended Howard and Barnard and Columbia, lived – really lived – in New York City, she was at heart a Florida girl.

Hurston grew up in Florida and she died there, and in between, she worked for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

During the Great Depression, Hurston was a WPA anthropologist and field researcher. She documented turpentine camps. She collected Florida’s African-American cultures, traditions, and folklore in the publication The Florida Negro. Hurston was a contributor to Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, one of the WPA’s acclaimed American Guide series, writing about Eatonville, one of the first all-black towns in the US, and the place where she was raised.

Zora Neale Hurston was an accomplished and inveterate traveler, increasingly by necessity. When it became difficult to publish her work, when her patrons died and her health began to fail, she wound up back in Florida, eventually without means, and lived her last days in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. When she died, her papers were saved (fortunately) from being destroyed by fire, and she ended up in an unmarked grave at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her work suffered similar obscurity.

We have Alice Walker to thank for Hurston’s restoration to our recognition, as well as for Hurston’s grave marker and its inscription “A Genius of the South” (from Jean Toomer’s poem, Georgia Dusk). Walker sought out Zora Neale Hurston and, when she discovered that her literary hero had no gravestone, she made it right.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda reminds us in Hamilton – a work that is quite well-known at the moment – our cultural mothers and fathers are powerless to determine
Who lives
Who dies
Who tells your story?

We are not.


Zora and Langston and the Mule-Bone

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

Politics can ruin everything. By the time a shining ideal make it way through the process to make them reality, it’s impossible to recognize the practitioner or the brainchild or both.

Zora Neale Hurston decided to join Langston Hughes on an artistically audacious project. They set out to write a play in African American vernacular, featuring characters instead of caricatures, and a plot derived from black folk tradition without stereotypes. Hurston and Hughes summed up their play: “the first real Negro folk comedy.”

Then came the sleights and jealousy, letters and telegrams, accusations and those last avid visitors to the spoiled banquet – lawyers.

But what caused the breach?

It wasn’t the idea of writing entirely in black vernacular – that concept sparked controversy only when the show was produced decades after the authors were dead.

It wasn’t the egotistic inability of the artists to collaborate. Both writers had other partnerships. Langston wrote operas with Jan Meyerowitz and the formidable Kurt Weill. Zora wrote a play (another comedy, this one with music) with Dorothy Waring.

No one is entirely sure what did happen. Hughes was in the process of severing ties with a rather calculating patron of the arts he shared with Hurston, whereas she was content to retain the patronage. The play originated in a folk tale Hurston documented during her anthropological work (“The Bone of Contention”) and there was the matter of who contributed more, who deserved credit for shaping the work.

Politics… well, it’s like I said.

Hurston, citing herself as sole author, submitted the play for copyright and sent it to a black theater company in Cleveland. Though later they both were credited in the Library of Congress, it was too late. On his copy, Hughes scrawled a brief of explanation: “This play was never done because the authors fell out.”

Kindnesses and unkindnesses followed – from both Huston and Hughes.

As for The Mule-Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts by Zora Hurston [sic] and Langston Hughes, his copy is with his papers at Yale and their copy is at the Library of Congress and you can read it here or, courtesy of the mighty Project Gutenberg, you can also read it here.

Here’s wishing us all many more kindnesses than unkindnesses in this most political season.

Summer Beaches: The Victor Hugo of the North

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016

It’s Summertime! What better time of year to celebrate famous Beaches?

This week we remember Rex Beach (1877-1949).


As a young man, Rex Beach joined the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska, and like most prospectors, he was unsuccessful.

Beach turned his experience into a best-selling novel called “The Spoilers,” which was adapted into a play and turned into a Hollywood movie five times. Beach wrote many other successful novels and plays, several of them set in the Alaskan wilds. In his time Beach was dubbed the “Victor Hugo of the North,” although his novels are generally thought of as poor cousins of Jack London stories. (Jack London was already was the Jack London of the North so that nickname wouldn’t have worked for Beach.)

After his time in Alaska, Beach became a member of the American water polo team and competed at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. Once again, gold eluded Rex Beach, but this time it wasn’t a total bust. His team took home the silver medal.

Summer Beaches: Edward L. Beach, Jr.

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

It’s Summertime! What better time of year to celebrate famous Beaches?

This week we remember Edward L. Beach, Jr. (1918-2002).


Edward “Ned” Beach was a decorated submarine officer who served in the Battle of Midway in WWII, and after the war, served as the naval aide to President Eisenhower.

Beach also was a best-selling author. His first novel, Run Silent, Run Deep, became a movie starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. However, like many authors, Beach was unhappy with the movie adaptation of his book. He wrote many more novels, as well as books on naval history, two memoirs, and numerous articles and book reviews on naval, military, and political subjects.

Though he achieved fame and popularity as a writer, Beach’s most remarkable achievement was his command of the nuclear submarine USS Triton, which he led on the first-ever circumnavigation of the earth by submarine. That’s a 41,000-mile voyage – 84 days without surfacing!

The Most Famous Person You’ve Never Heard Of

Thursday, May 12th, 2016


Sholem (aka “Sholom”) Aleichem died on May 13, 1916.

Sholem Aleichem was the Mark Twain of Yiddish. In fact, the story of their first meeting goes something like this: in 1906, someone introduced Sholem Aleichem as “the Yiddish Mark Twain” and Mark Twain said, QUOTE: “Please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”

Nobody hasn’t heard of Fiddler on the Roof, which was taken from Aleichem’s stories – although the musical takes liberties (by adding a fiddler, for instance).

Here are some facts and exhortations:

  • If you like Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, you should read Aleichem’s The Bloody Hoax
  • Like Mark Twain, Aleichem wrote under a pseudonym. “Sholem Aleichem” is Yiddish (שלום־עליכם, sholem aleykhem) for “peace be upon you.”
  • He was the first person to write for children in Yiddish
  • His ethical will was printed in its entirety on the front page of the New York Times.
  • There is an impact crater on Mars named after him
  • When he died in 1916, his was the among the largest public funerals in New York City history, attended by some 200,000 people

Want to find out more?

In Queens? You can visit him here.

In NYC, YIVO will present this tribute on May 22nd commemorating the 100th anniversary of his death..

And as specified in his remarkable will, readings of his stories take place on the occasion of his yahrzeit. You can attend an official reading at the Brotherhood Synagogue.

Speaking of that will, here it is, as it appeared in the New York Times. Click on the image to see it large enough to read.


National Black Finger Puppet Month: Zora Neale Hurston

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

February is Black History Month, so we have decided to honor the occasion by posting about great African Americans who we have immortalized as finger puppets.

Today we highlight author, folklorist and Harlem Renaissance legend ZORA NEALE HURSTON (1891-1960).


Here are some facts about Zora Neale Hurston and about UPG’s Zora Neale Hurston Finger puppet:

Zora Neale Hurston was the daughter of two highly accomplished former slaves. Her mother became a school teacher, and her father was the mayor of one of the first incorporated all-black communities in the US.

The Zora Neale Hurston puppet wears a floppy hat (like Zora used to wear) and a pearl necklace.

At a young age, Hurston worked a variety of jobs, including as a maid for an actress in a touring Gilbert and Sullivan group.

Hurston was a Republican and libertarian, although she was not a social conservative.

The Zora Neale Hurston puppet is approximately 4” tall.

Zora Neale Hurston studied at Barnard College under Franz Boas, the pioneer of modern anthropology.

Penniless at the time of her death, Zora Neale Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave.

In 1973, Alice Walker found Hurston’s grave and erected a gravestone. She was also responsible for bringing Hurston’s work back into print. It remains in print and widely admired today.

The Zora Neale Hurston puppet is also a magnet.

January 23rd, Procrastination Day

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

On January 23rd, 1546, Francois Rabelais finally finally published the next installment of his megahit, La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, after keeping his fans waiting for more than a decade.

You may wonder whether Rabelais’ wildly popular masterpieces – five books in all – were adventure stories or romances or scholarly treatises. In fact, they were all these things and more, including satirical stories chockablock with insults so foul and inventive they would shock your Moms even if she taught public school on the docks of a premium cable channel.

These tales of drunken debauchery, people made of sausage, and a giant who hates crowds so much he drowns them with urine, are classics. As for Panurge and his “magnificent codpiece”… you’ll have to trust us when we say it all comes off a whole lot ritzier when it’s written in classical French.

Thus, let us commemorate Procrastination Day as we procrastinate — although our public is waiting!


Francois Rabelais: Procrastinator.