Literary Stories for Dec. 19-22

'A Christmas Carol' is published, Jean Genet, and more

Here are your stories about notable literary birthdays and events for Dec. 19-22.


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Dec. 19

A Christmas Carol Hits Shelves

Today in 1843, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is published for the first time. It's the story of a wealthy older man named Ebenezer Scrooge. Four ghosts visit him on Christmas Eve, causing him to change his greedy ways.

The publisher, Chapman and Hall released 6,000 copies of the novella. They sold out within days. Dickens, though, didn't make much money from the book's popularity. His publishing requirements for the book pushed production costs sky-high. For example, the writer insisted A Christmas Carol be bound in red cloth. And he wanted it to include expensive color illustrations.

The lack of profitability was a problem. For one thing, Dickens paid for the novella's publication. Chapman and Hall weren't interested in releasing another Dickens book. His most recent one, Martin Chuzzlewit, flopped. Dickens had to pay the publishers back for the advance he'd received to write the novel. On top of it all, Dickens's wife, Catherine, was pregnant with their fifth child.

So when a weekly newspaper published 50,000 pirated copies of A Christmas Carol, Dickens took action. He couldn't afford for someone else to make money from his story. Dickens sued the paper, Parley's Illuminated Library, and won. He didn't receive any damages, though, because Parley's declared bankruptcy. And Dickens had to pay for costs associated with the case.

In the end, Dickens made about £230 off the first 6,000 copies of A Christmas Carol. That's about $12,380 today. The author eventually earned a good living writing. He established himself as one of the greatest English-language storytellers who ever lived. And with A Christmas Carol, he gave Christmas-celebrating cultures around the world a classic holiday story.

Jean Genet

Two Black Panther Party members stood trial for murder in New Haven, Conn., in May 1970. A white Frenchman came to their defense. For two months, the man toured the U.S. He spoke through an interpreter on college campuses and to the press about racism and injustice in America. The Frenchman appeared an unlikely ally for the Black Panthers, but he was Jean Genet. And he knew a thing or two about societal mistreatment.

Genet was born Dec. 19, 1910, in Paris. He was the illegitimate son of a prostitute, and by seven, he was living with foster parents. At ten, his adoptive mother accused him of stealing money from her purse. She confronted the boy, and Genet later explained his confession.

"I answered yes to every accusation made against me, no matter how unjust," Genet said. "Yes, I had to become what they said I was."

For three decades, Genet survived by begging, stealing, and working as a prostitute across Europe. He'd been in 13 jails and kicked-out of five countries by the time he was 35. But it's during a stint in prison in 1942 that Genet started writing. He produced a novel, Notre-Dame des Fleurs, or Our Lady of the Flowers, in 1943. Many read and loved the book.

Genet's next novel was 1946's Miracle de la rose (Miracle of the Rose). He released two books the following year, gaining a following that included some of France's best-known writers. His influential readership proved fortuitous for the novelist in 1948. That's when he was again convicted for theft. It was his tenth conviction, and Genet faced life imprisonment.

But Genet's famous friends came to his rescue. A group led by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize in Literature winner André Gide, and poet Jean Cocteau asked French President Vincent Auriol to pardon Genet. Auriol did. Genet was free.

Genet turned to theater in the mid-20th century. He wrote plays, including one called "Les Nègres," or, "The Blacks." The production highlighted racial prejudice, and it came to the U.S. in 1959. "The Blacks" ran off-Broadway for 1,408 performances.

And Genet returned to the U.S. in 1970 for the murder trial of Black Panther Party members Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins. Genet explained his support by saying, "I am with them because I have much admiration for those who risk their lives for reasons of politics. But it has gone beyond politics. They are no longer simply comrades in combat. They have become friends."

The trial jury deadlocked, and a judge dismissed the charges against Seale and Huggins. After the trial, Genet returned to France. He lived there until his death in Paris on Apr. 15, 1986.

Dec. 20

Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry is Created

On Jun. 7, 1985, Hawaii Sen. Spark Matsunaga did the same thing he'd done every session of Congress since 1963. He introduced for the twenty-second time a bill to create a poetry laureateship in the U.S. The first time he tried, Matsunaga was a freshman Congressman. Now he was in his second term as a U.S. Senator.

Matsunaga wanted a federal poet laureate role because he thought it would elevate poetry. After all, Matsunaga was a poetry fan. He wrote poems in his spare time. He even once opened dinner with the Japanese prime minister by reciting one of his haikus.

But for 22 years, Matsunaga was unable to create a poetry laureateship. This time, though, the senator tacked his legislation onto a bill reauthorizing the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act. Matsunaga's co-sponsors included Senators Ted Kennedy, Dan Quayle, and Christopher Dodd. The amendment went to committee, which made some edits.

For one thing, Matsunaga's plan was for the President of the United States to select the U.S. Poet Laureate. But this changed. The final bill gave the Librarian of Congress, who runs the Library of Congress, the duties of appointing a laureate. After all, the Librarian already selected a Consultant in Poetry.

On Oct. 3, 1985, the Senate approved Matsunaga's legislation. The House followed on Dec. 3, and the bill went to President Ronald Raegan. The President signed Public Law 99-194 on Dec. 20, 1985, creating the position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. When the Library announced Robert Penn Warren as the first Poet Laureate in February 1986, Sen. Matsunaga said, "I am overwhelmingly pleased."

Including Warren, 23 poets have served as Poet Laureates. Joy Harjo currently holds the title. She succeeded Tracey K. Smith.

There aren't many requirements for the position. Instead, the Library of Congress wants to give the Poet Laureates freedom to work on projects vital to them. Examples of past Laureate's work includes distributing poetry in airports (Joseph Brodsky) and holding poetry readings in rural towns (Smith).

Dec. 22

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Dec. 22 is the birthday of a poet whose name was drawn from a hat. He was born in Tide Head, Maine, in 1869. His parents, Edward and Mary Robinson, expected their third child to be a girl. So they had no name prepared when the baby turned out to be a boy. And the baby stayed nameless for six months.

Then one summer day, while on vacation, Mary visited with a group of women. They couldn't believe Mary hadn't named her baby and decided to help. Each woman wrote a name on a piece of paper and dropped it into a hat. Someone pulled out one piece of paper. On it was the name, Edwin. The woman who wrote Edwin was from Arlington, Mass. And so the unnamed baby became Edwin Arlington Robinson.

His family, though, refused to use it. Instead, they called him Win. While Robinson didn't like the nickname, he despised his legal name, too. He signed letters with his initials, E.A.

Robinson liked words as a child. And at 20, he started writing poetry. A neighbor recognized Robinson's potential and taught the young man about poetic form. About this period of his life, Robinson later said, "I was doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me."

By 1896 Robinson was ready to release his first poetry collection. Unable to find a publisher, he instead self-published the book. He mailed copies of The Torrent and the Night Before to writers and literary journal editors. The move generated some positive reviews and attention for Robinson's work.

But despite his early success, Robinson struggled. His family lost most of their money in the panic of 1893. His parents and oldest brother died. And, after moving to New York City, Robinson lived in poverty.

But then Kermit Roosevelt read one of Robinson's collections, Children of the Night. He loved it. The year was 1904, and Kermit's father, Theodore, was President of the United States.

Kermit gave his dad a copy of Children of the Night. The President enjoyed the book enough that he pressured its publisher to reissue the collection. And he got Robinson a job in the Customs House in New York. Robinson dedicated his next volume, The Town Down the River, to Theodore Roosevelt.

Robinson went on to publish 26 books. He was in the 1920s, one of the most famous poets in America. And he won three Pulitzer Prizes in Poetry. Today, though, Robinson's most known for two of his poems, "Miniver Cheevy" and "Richard Cory." The former poem is about an alcoholic who longs for the past. And the latter tells the story of a wealthy banker who commits suicide.

Robinson lived to be 65. He died of cancer in New York City in 1935.


A Christmas Carol

Jean Genet

Poet Laureate

Edwin Arlington Robinson