Literary Stories for Dec. 16-18

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Here are your stories about notable literary birthdays and events for Dec. 16-18.

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Dec. 16

Jane Austen

Dec. 16 is the birthday of a writer referenced 27 times in American legal decisions. That’s Jane Austen. She’s appeared in judge’s rulings at all levels of America’s courts.

Professor Matthew H. Birkhold reviewed all the cases referencing Austen. He found that some judges quoted Austen’s work, such as Pride and Prejudice. Others referenced the writer herself. Judges female and male cite Austen. And the decisions range from domestic disputes to white-collar criminal prosecutions.

Birkhold thinks it’s Austen’s ability to parse people and culture that makes her appealing to judges. “Jane Austen is cited as an authority on the complexity of life, particularly with regard to the intricacies of relationships,” Birkhold said.

That authority's also why many continue to read Austen more than 200 years after her death. She published six novels. Her best-known books are Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

Austen was born in 1775 in Hampshire, England. She was the seventh of eight kids. Her parents, Cassandra and George, ran a bookish household. All the Austen children grew up reading.

But it was Jane who took to writing. She started writing as a child and finished her first novella when she was 19. Jane then turned to novel writing. Sitting at the table in her family’s dining room, she wrote in small handmade books. The journals were small. Their compact size meant Jane could hide them if some entered the room.

After all, Jane didn't want others to know what she was up to. For years only her parents, siblings, and best friend knew Jane wrote stories. She led others to believe she spent her time writing letters. It wasn’t until after her first two novels came out that people outside her close circle realized that Jane Austen was an author. This recognition came even though all six of Austen’s novels were published anonymously.

Today, though, many people know her name. Jane Austen is one of the most-read authors of all time. Many movies and TV shows portray Austen’s books. And the author’s inspired many spin-off novels, including The Clergyman's Wife. Written by Molly Greeley, the novel came out Dec. 3.

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick had his wisdom teeth extracted in Feb. 1974. His recovery included a prescription to sodium pentothal, also known as “truth serum.” Dick experienced a series of visions while taking the drug. During these apparitions, Dick said a pink light beamed information into his consciousness. The writer started documenting these experiences in what became an 8,000-page journal. He called it “Exegesis.”

“The title he gave it, ‘Exegesis,’ alludes to the fact that what it really was was a personal laboratory for philosophical inquiry,” author Jonathan Lethem, a friend of Dick’s, said. “It’s not even a single manuscript, in a sense. It’s an amassing or a compilation of late-night all-night sessions of him taking on the universe, mano a mano, with the tools of the English language and his own paranoiac investigations.”

Long writing sessions were not new to Dick. By the time he started “Exegesis,” he’d produced over 100 stories and novels over the past 22 years. Dick typed 120 words a minute. And he often wrote in amphetamine-fueled 20-hour-long sessions. 

Dick’s productivity generated some of today’s best-known science fiction stories. He wrote novels such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Man in the High Castle. Dick won the 1962 Hugo Award for the latter book. And his work inspired many movies or TV shows.

The film rights for one of Dick’s short stories, “Paycheck,” sold for $2 million in 1996. If Dick were alive today, he’d be one of Hollywood’s highest-paid authors. But Dick, born on Dec. 16, 1928, didn’t earn much money in his lifetime. He died of a stroke on Mar. 2, 1982. 

Dick’s death came three months before the release of the first movie inspired by his work. Based on his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, that film, Blade Runner, stars Harrison Ford. A follow-up movie, Blade Runner 2049, came out in 2017. Today, worldwide box office sales for all movies based on Dick’s books are near $900 million.

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Dec. 17

Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford was born as Ford Hermann Hueffer on Dec. 17, 1873, in Surrey, England. His father, Dr. Franz Hüffer, had emigrated from Germany to England four years prior. Hüffer changed his surname to Hueffer. And he married painter Ford Madox Brown’s daughter, Catherine Madox Brown. Ford was the first of three children for Catherine and Franz.

Ford grew up around intellectuals and artists and early on demonstrated a knack for writing. He published his first novel, The Shifting Fire, at 18, and became friends with writer Joseph Conrad. They collaborated on two books, The Inheritors, published in 1901, and Romance, which came out in 1903.

The following year, though, Ford suffered a mental breakdown. He recovered in Germany, then returned to London. There Ford founded a literary journal, English Review, and produced five novels in three years. He released all his work during this time using his birth name, Ford Hueffer.

And that’s the name he used when he produced his most famous novel, The Good Soldier. A character named John Dowell narrates the book. He and his wife, Florence, are Americans. While visiting Europe, they befriend an English couple, Leonora and Edward Ashburnham. Broken into four parts, The Good Soldier is a non-chronological series of Dowell’s flashbacks and reflections. Ford uses the tale to explore cultural norms and morality in pre-World War I Western society. The tale begins with Dowell saying, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

World War I was underway by the time The Good Soldier came out. Ford, then 41-years-old, enlisted in the British Army four months after the book’s release. He served in France, where a shell exploded near him during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. A year later, the army sent Ford home as an invalid.

The writer published books of poetry and four novels inspired by his service during the war. T.S. Eliot called Ford's poem, "Antwerp," "the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war."

And in June 1919, Ford changed his name. He dropped the German parts of his name, Hermann Hueffer, and borrowed from his maternal grandfather’s name, Madox Ford. From then on, the author released his works using his new name, Ford Madox Ford.

Ford spent the rest of his life between England and Paris. He championed the works of writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. He died in 1939. In 2014, The Guardian listed The Good Soldier as number 41 on its list of The Best 100 Novels.

Dec. 18

Saki

When war broke out in July 1914, the British Army found itself with an unlikely enlistee. For one thing, Hector Hugh Munro, or H.H. Munro, was forty-three years old. This age was five years older than the highest age required for enlistment in the army. And Munro was a well-known writer.

Munro published under the pen name, Saki. He delighted readers with witty, satirical high-society tales. After all, England’s Edwardian society was something with which Munro was well acquainted. His father was Inspector General of Police for the British Crown in Burma, present-day Myanmar. And two well-to-do aunts raised Munro and his siblings in Devon, England.

Munro started writing first as a journalist before turning to short stories. His writing featured surprise endings, mischievous characters, and memorable lines. For example, in his story “Reginald on Besetting Sins,” Munro wrote, “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.”

But as Europe erupted into war, Munro’s felt called to take action. The writer was politically conservative. After all, some of his stories mocked women’s suffrage. And he held derogatory views of Jewish people and Socialists. Munro viewed the war as a fight against Socialism’s creep toward England. It was a fight Munro wanted to join, telling a friend, “I have always looked forward to the romance of a European war.”

And so Munro enlisted in the British Army in July 1914. He declined an officer’s commission and joined the battlefield as a common soldier. Life in the trenches of the Great War took a physical toll on the aristocratic writer. He grew a mustache to cover-up having lost most of his upper teeth. Yet Munro was content, telling his sister Ethel in a letter that serving was “like being man and boy at the same time.”

Munro volunteered for frontline service throughout his two years on the Western Front. That’s where he took shelter in a crater on the battlefield in Nov. 1916, near the town of Beaumont-Hamel. Another soldier lit a cigarette during a break in the action. Admonishing the man, Munro said, “Put that bloody cigarette out!” At that moment, a sniper’s bullet struck Munro, killing him. He was 45.

Sources

Significant effort goes into ensuring the information shared in literary stories is factual and accurate. However, errors can occur. If you see a factual error, please let me know by emailing nick@bidwellhollow.com. I'll make every effort to verify and correct any factual inaccuracies. Thank you.

Jane Austen

Philip K. Dick

Ford Madox Ford

Saki