Literary Stories for Dec. 9-11

Reading time: 7 1/2 minutes

Here are your stories about notable literary birthdays and events for Dec. 9-11.

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Dec. 9

‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is Published

On Dec. 9, 1854, the British newspaper The Examiner published for the first time, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

The poem commemorates the charging of British cavalrymen toward an overwhelming Russian force. Of the 620 troops who charged, 118 were killed and 127 wounded. The charge was part of the Battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War, on Oct. 25, 1854. An account of the disastrous attack ran in the British newspaper The Times 20 days later.

Tennyson was Britain’s Poet Laureate. On Dec. 2, he read The Times’ report at his home on the Isle of Wight. He immediately started working on a poem based on the article. Walking the chalk ridge overlooking the English Channel outside his house, the poet recited aloud his words. Once satisfied, he returned indoors and put the poem to paper. Tennyson sent the piece to The Examiner, which published “The Charge of the Light Brigade” a week after its creation.

The first of the poem’s six stanzas begins:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Léonie Adams

On Jan. 31, 1949, guests gathered in the Coolidge Auditorium inside the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. They were there to hear Léonie Adams. She was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library, having started her term the previous fall.

Inside the auditorium, Adams read poems from her collections, Those not elect and High Falcon. She also read ten unpublished poems she’d written, and commented on her work. Adams’s reading in the Coolidge Auditorium was the first time the Library’s Consultant in Poetry gave an inaugural reading of their poetry. The Consultant role is today known as the U.S. Poet Laureate.

The practice of an inaugural reading continued unofficially until 1948. That year, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Luther H. Evans, made it a rule of the position. Since then, all Consultants and Poet Laureates have given inaugural poetry readings. Eighteen of those occurred in the Coolidge Auditorium, including current Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s reading. It took place in the Coolidge on Sep. 19.

During her tenure as Consultant, Adams compiled recordings of poets’ readings. The Library of Congress published the recordings as record albums. One of the last things she did as Consultant was requesting readings from poets Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish.

In Sep. 1949, Elizabeth Bishop succeeded Adams as Consultant. Adams returned to the home she shared with her husband, William Troy, near New Milford, Conn. She published in 1954 Poems: A Collection, for which she won the 1955 Bollingen Prize.

Adams was born on Dec. 9, 1899, in Brooklyn. She passed away on June 27, 1988, in New Milford.

Special thanks to the Library of Congress’s Peter Armenti and Robert Casper for assisting in the research for this story.

Dec. 10

Emily Dickinson

For many years, Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson’s oldest daughter, Emily, never left the family’s house in Amherst, Mass. She instead tended the garden and completed household chores. Emily often wore a white dress with pockets in the front. And inside those pockets, she kept a small notebook and a pencil.

As she went about her duties, Emily would pause. She’d pull the notebook out of her dress pocket, flip it open, and jot something into it. Then she would resume whatever task was at hand.

At night, Emily stayed in her second-floor bedroom. She kept the door closed and a candle burning on a small table, where she sat writing poems. She wrote in her notebook, on the backs of envelopes, and on stationary. After all, Emily’s writing didn’t take up much space. Some pieces were as short as four lines.

Sometimes Emily included her poems in letters she sent to family members. A few times, her poems ended up in a newspaper, though never with her name attached. And for a while, between 1858-1865, she stitched some of her poems into small booklets. But Emily kept most of what she wrote in unorganized piles in her room.

Then on May 15, 1886, at age 50, Emily Dickinson died. Her sister, Lavinia, with whom she shared the house in Amherst, survived her. So the duty of cleaning up Emily’s bedroom fell to Lavinia after her sister’s death.

Lavinia chose not to toss her sister’s scribblings into the trash. She instead asked Mabel Loomis Todd to help publish Emily’s poems. Todd, in turn, enlisted Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He was a Unitarian minister who’d years earlier exchanged letters with Emily. With Todd and Higginson’s efforts, Poems by Emily Dickinson came out in 1890. The book sold well, going through 11 editions in its first year. Todd published two more collections of Emily’s poems over the next few years.

Emily Dickinson’s popularity continued growing into the 20th century. Today, she’s regarded by many as a leading American poet. Dickinson, born Dec. 10, 1830, in Amherst, is often mentioned alongside foremost poets such as Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.

Dec. 11

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Dec. 11 is the birthday of a writer who had to choose between his country and the Nobel Prize. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 in the southern Russia city of Kislovodsk. He burst onto the literary scene in 1962 with his novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The story details Soviet labor camps under Stalin.

The only reason Nikita Khrushchev permitted the work’s publishing is that he thought it could help him politically. He soon regretted his decision, though. The novella was the first time most Russians knew the details of their nation’s gulag system. Over one million copies of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were sold.

From then on, authorities censored much of Solzhenitsyn’s work. And his novels The First Circle and Cancer Ward were smuggled out of the country for publishing. Books such as these made the writer known outside the Soviet Union. But as Solzhenitsyn’s star rose in the West, it dimmed with leaders in his own country. The Union of Writers removed the novelist from its roster, and he lost his official status as an author.

The Nobel Committee awarded Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. Solzhenitsyn sensed his precarious status in Russia and feared he wouldn’t be allowed to return if he left the country. So, the writer declined to travel to Stockholm to accept the Prize. His worry turned out to be well-founded.

In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, convicted of treason, and tossed out of the Soviet Union. He and his wife, Natalia, and their four sons first went to Zurich. There, though, they struggled to maintain their privacy. And they feared Switzerland was too easy a place for the KGB to reach Solzhenitsyn.

So the family moved to Cavendish, Vt. The town’s population at the time was about 1,300. It was at least two hours from the nearest airport. The winters were long, cold, and dark, not too dissimilar from Russia’s. And Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn could write in seclusion. The family bought a 51-acre property and moved there in 1976.

Solzhenitsyn attended a town meeting the following year. He explained why his family chose Cavendish. “I dislike very much large cities with their empty and fussy lives,” Solzhenitsyn said. “I like very much the simple way of life and the population here, the simplicity and the human relationships.” The novelist added an apology for building a gated fence around his property. He needed the barrier, he said, to keep out interlopers.

It turns out, the people of Cavendish protected Solzhenitsyn’s privacy, too. Townspeople refused to give out-of-towners directions to the writer’s home. The general store hung a sign that read, “No Restrooms, No Bare Feet, No Directions to the Solzhenitsyn Home.”

The seclusion gave Solzhenitsyn what he needed to keep writing. For 18 years, he and his family lived in Cavendish. During that time, the author spent hours working in an outbuilding near the property’s main house. That’s where he finished his Red Wheel trilogy. Set in Russia, the novels flow from World War I to the Bolshevik Revolution.

But in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Mikhail Gorbachev restored Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship. And the novelist returned in 1994 to Russia. Before departing, Solzhenitsyn again attended a Cavendish town meeting. He thanked the townspeople for their support over the years. “Exile is always difficult, and yet I could not imagine a better place to live, and wait, and wait for my return home, than Cavendish, Vermont,” Solzhenitsyn said.

Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison loved and knew food. And it’s through his explorations of the culinary arts that many came to know Harrison’s writing. He published essays on cuisine for many years in magazines like Esquire. In 2001, he released a collection of these articles in The Raw and the Cooked.

But Harrison’s writing expanded beyond food. He produced 21 volumes of fiction. One such book is Legends of the Fall. It’s a collection of three novellas. The title piece became a 1995 film starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. Harrison also wrote 14 poetry volumes, a memoir, and a children’s book.

Harrison was born Dec. 11, 1937 in Grayling, Mich. Yet it was America’s West where he lived most of his lifetime. For years he spent summers near Livingston, Mon. Indeed, it was his connection to both food and Montana that put him on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show “Parts Unknown.”

The episode’s interlaced throughout with excerpts from Harrison’s writing. And the show concludes with Bourdain and Harrison eating a meal of elk carbonade. It was the last meal Bourdain ate with Harrison. The author died four months after filming the episode.

Bourdain later wrote that the show’s footage of Harrison was likely the last taken of the writer. About Harrison Bourdain wrote, “To the very end, he ate like a champion, smoked like a chimney, lusted (at least in his heart) after nearly every woman he saw, drank wine in quantities that would be considered injudicious in a man half his age, and most importantly, got up and wrote each and every day—brilliant, incisive, thrilling sentences and verses that will live forever. He died, I am told, with pen in hand.”


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‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’

Léonie Adams

Emily Dickinson

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Jim Harrison