This Week in Literary History: Jan. 18-24

Recognizing the birthdays of Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Wharton, and more

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and welcome to a new edition of This Week in Literary History from Bidwell Hollow. Your stories and a list of notable literary births and events for Jan. 18-24 is below.


Sol Yurick, a writer who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind

By Andria Kennedy

"Sol had a totally different take on things. Whether it was Marxism, Darwinism, Greek mythology, or Jewish mysticism, he was always interconnecting things at so many levels." The scientist Robert Shapiro distilled the many sides of Sol Yurick distinctly in this statement. While hailed as the brilliant mind behind the cult classic The Warriors (though he despised what Hollywood did to his original work), Yurick was an outspoken critic of society in general and capitalism in particular. The levels of his mind stunned and dazzled those around him - when he wasn't shocking them with his frank opinions.

"A work of art should, presumably, continue to shape our easy acceptance of the world, make us see in new ways, create new metaphors with which to view the world; new art should go beyond engineered reality. The poverty of Capote's 'new' art form is appalling, the shallowness stupefying." Sol Yurick published this review of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood in 1983 - a novel met with adoration by the remainder of the literary world. Yurick took exception to the seemingly blind praise, though. His critical eye focused on the agricultural world's politics left out of other reviews, picking Capote's novel apart. It introduced a fresh angle to the "masterpiece," prompting a new line of thought - for the few capable of thinking along the same pathways as Yurick.

"At times, Yurick ascends into regions of abstraction where I can't follow. I lose him in the mists," Novelist Brian Morton commented the same year when reviewing Yurick's Metatron, which explores emerging ideologies in the information age.

And Joyce Carol Oates said of Yurick in 1972, "Any modestly gifted writer can venture into 'surrealism.' Few indeed can handle the densities and outrageous paradoxes of 'real' life. The straightforward sections of The Bag and Fertig and the unfantasized horrors of this collection's realistic stories have a power to move us, urgently and deeply, that cannot be matched by any of the author's superficially sophisticated contemporaries."

Sol Yurick had no time for the fantastical world. Working as a social worker, he quickly learned that the children he interviewed provided nothing more than expected answers. It took the rental of a panel truck before Sol found the truth, watching them gathering on the street. "In a sense, an author who is trying to write about life has to be a little like an intelligence agent," he admitted.

The gritty reality carried over into his writing, though not always to widespread acclaim. A furious essay on the welfare system that he submitted to Commentary met with repeated rejections. Yurick felt the refusal was political (he was a staunch communist), but the passion in his writing likely prompted the denials. Commentary wanted something detached and civil - neither of which Sol Yurick ever showed a capacity for.

Even at the end of his life, Yurick maintained a firm grip on his passionate views - and the real world.

"Significant events get distorted when looked at through time's and ideologies' truth-bending lenses, like light traveling through curved space,” Yurick wrote. “Indeed nothing is straight in our universe, other than the idealistic paths of logic and mathematics. And while traumatic events become etched in the very synaptic spaces, events of no significance also remain. And dreams - eruptions from the mysterious realm of the unconscious which, as Freud would have it, knows everything - become mixed with scenes from books read, films, paintings, etc., compounded into a soup that includes excerpts from history, as well as religious and secular mythologies. Add to this that no story - technology notwithstanding - can be told again in exactly the same way. For each time we return to the memorable moment, be it individual or collective, or a mix, we are in a different context, and this alters the story."

Sol Yurick

  • Born on Jan. 18, 1925, in New York, N.Y.

  • Died on Jan. 5, 2013, in New York, N.Y.


The king of the macabre fought a bitter rival

By Andrew Sanger

Edgar Allan Poe was born on Jan. 19, 1809, in Boston, Mass. For nearly 200 years now, his legacy has endured as one of literature’s most influential writers of novels, poems, short stories, and criticism. 

Throughout his 40 years, Poe invented or redefined countless aspects of popular fiction. He found massive success in his time, and his short stories and poems were popular enough for him to be one of America’s first full-time fiction writers. He is best known for his work in the horror genre, having penned short stories like The Cask of AmontilladoThe Fall of the House of Usher, and The Tell-Tale Heart, but his influence reaches far beyond just the macabre. He’s also been credited with effectively creating the modern detective fiction genre and is often cited as heavily influencing science fiction’s early development. Suffice it to say that Poe forever changed fiction in the U.S. and around the world. 

However, as is always the case, there are bound to be those who resent success and popularity; and you don’t become the legendary Edgar Allan Poe without making a few enemies. For Poe, his short life and career’s most notable rivalry was with the writer, poet, and critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold. 

Alongside his creative writing endeavors, Poe also found work as a literary critic and was generally thought to be a particularly harsh one at that. So it may come as some surprise that Griswold one day decided to pay Poe ten dollars to review his new anthology: The Poets and Poetry of America, in 1842. 

Perhaps Griswold thought that his inclusion of some of Poe’s work in the anthology would serve to ease Poe’s perennially sharp words. This proved to be a miscalculation on Griswold’s part, and Poe’s review of the collection, while still being generally favorable, questioned Griswold’s judgment in including poets who were “too mediocre to entitle them to particular notice.” Poe’s review was a far cry from the glowing praise Griswold was hoping for and marked the beginning of a literary grudge match between the two men.

Poe didn’t go out of his way to ease the matter at all, and as he toured the east coast providing lectures on poetry, he often took opportunities to make jabs at Griswold, his work, his literary judgment, and his friends. The two men went tit for tat over the next few years. Poe wrote a book satirizing Griswold’s The Poets and Poetry of America. Griswold wrote an essay attacking Poe’s editorial skills. Poe then wrote a story where a character gets dumber as he reads Griswold’s work. The two fought over Frances Sargant Osgood’s romantic affections, who was herself a prolific writer of the day. Neither man pulled their punches.

Interestingly, Poe experts claim that his understanding of his and Griswold’s relationship is that it was a good-natured, sportsmanlike professional rivalry. Their feud appears to have been far more than that for Griswold, who continued to attack Poe with intense personal vitriol even after Poe’s death.

The circumstances surrounding Poe’s death are mysterious, with no one explanation being entirely satisfactory. On Oct. 3, 1849, Poe was discovered on Baltimore’s streets dressed in another man’s clothes, clearly distressed and utterly incoherent. Investigators at the time were baffled, and when Poe died in the hospital four days later, it seemed that there was no hope of ever knowing for sure just what had come over him or what events led to his death. To this day, there is no officially recognized cause of death. 

Enter Griswold, who found one last opportunity to strike at the man he felt had slighted him in life in Poe’s passing. As the story goes, Griswold somehow managed to convince Poe’s mother-in-law to sign away the rights to Poe’s work. Griswold published Poe’s writings and his biography of Poe, titled Memoir of the Author. The portrait he painted of Poe was not flattering. He portrayed Poe as a degenerate alcoholic, drug-addict, and madman.

Griswold was also the author of an infamous Poe obituary in which he levels similar defamatory claims against the author. Although he signed the obituary simply “Ludwig,” he later owned up to being its author. The obituary announces: “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” 

Fortunately for Poe, Griswold’s attempt to control the narrative of his life ultimately fell flat. In the short term, at least, Griswold’s efforts were a success. Poe’s status did suffer after Griswold’s “memoir” was published. But while Poe certainly got his fair of cheap shots in against Griswold, who’s retribution was not entirely unfounded, time seems to have selected a victor in their feud. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason that not many have heard the name Rufus Wilmot Griswold, while Edgar Allan Poe is still considered one of the single most important names in American letters.

Edgar Allan Poe

  • Born on Jan. 19, 1809, in Boston, Mass.

  • Died on Oct. 7, 1849, in Baltimore, Md.


Maya Angelou becomes the first Black woman to recite poetry at a Presidential inauguration

By Emily Quiles

Maya Angelou was downstairs in the family room of her Winston-Salem home in North Carolina when she received the call. “Either coming from or going to the fitness room,” Angelou told Oprah Winfrey.

“Hello, Miss Angelou -- Dr. Angelou?” corrected the man on the other line when she answered. “Yes,” she responded. The man addressed himself as Harry Thomason, “I’m chair of the campaign -- anyway, the inaugural part of the campaign and -- for Mr. Clinton.”

“Yes?” Angelou said as she anticipated what would follow.

Thomason continued. “‘Mr. Clinton was reminded last week that as president-elect, he could ask any poet in the country to write a poem for his inauguration.’ My knees started to turn to water,” she recalled to Winfrey. “Hold on,” she told Thomason. “Let me sit down.” 

“I know that nobody can ask a poet to write, you know, to order,” explained Thomason. “But could you have a poem ready in a certain amount of time?” As Angelou began to come to terms with the task requested by this man, he added another challenge. “Mr. Clinton wanted you up on the platform with him to deliver the poem.”

“Oh, my goodness,” was all that Angelou could mutter as she sat, in shock. The man’s voice centered her back to the phone, “What do you think?” 

“Of course,” she said, “but of course.” 

The only instruction she was given was that there were no stipulations. Trusting her voice to represent where America was in the early 1990s, Thomason told Angelou, “Whatever you’d like to say.”

“In all my work, what I try to say is that as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike,” she said. “It may be that Mr. Clinton asked me to write the inaugural poem because he understood that I am the kind of person who really does bring people together.”

At the time, Angelou was well established in the entertainment circle of performance and screenwriting. Her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, along with her poetry, would mark her legacy. Quite poetically, Bill and Hilary Clinton bonded over I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when they first met.

“I wanted a poem,” Bill Clinton said in the documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. “Once I made that decision, I didn’t think of anybody else. She understood the time we were living in.” With Clinton’s campaign based on values of building community, creating opportunity, and demanding responsibility, and with Angelou’s devotion to activism and her overall emotional depth as a writer, the poem would capture the state of America.

“Oh, I felt pressured,” she told Winfrey. “But you see, what allows me to go on from darkness into darkness is a profound faith.” She asked her friends, family, and small babies for prayers. “I ask everybody to pray for me all the time,” she told The New York Times leading up to the reading on Jan. 20, 1993. “Pray. Pray. Pray. Just send me some good energies.”

For performance nerves to fully form, she first needed a poem. “I had to wait until it could get all into the marrow of my bones and into my fingernails, into my hair follicles, and when I finally understood what I had to do, then I started writing.” 

As per Angelou’s usual writing habit, she got a hotel room with a legal writing pad, a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Bible. “I went to it every morning," Angelou said. "And I sat there and wrote about my country, about my own people, African-Americans. I wrote about Irish. I wrote about Italians. I wrote about Jews. I wrote about Anglo-Sax--I wrote about all--Asians--all of us. I just wrote pages.”

Then time came to reduce the pages of consciousness into just short of four pages of stanzas, forming a poem titled, "On the Pulse of Morning." It's first lines read:

“A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed"

Angelou’s three symbols of nature, the rock, tree, and river, came from “three elements of Genius in African-American literature and canon of art.” The first, a rock came from the 19th century spiritual, "There’s No Hiding Place Down Here." Its lyrics read: “Oh, I went to the rock to hide my face, rock cried out no hiding place.”

The river came from "Deep River," popularized by Henry Burleigh. Angelou's grandmother’s favorite song, "I Shall Not Be Moved," inspired the symbol of the tree. The singer sings that he is “like a tree planted by the waters.”

On Jan. 20, 1993, Angelou wore all black with a red bow pinned to her coat. Her voice echoed on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. “The minute she started talking you could just feel change rolling across the crowd and everybody started listening,” recalled Clinton.

With tears in her eyes she ended with, “Goodmorning.” Clinton stood up, clapped then wrapped her in his arms.


Edith Wharton’s anthropological coup d’œil into the Gilded Age starts at The Mount

By Christine Kingery

Edith Wharton is most known for her novels The Age of InnocenceThe House of Mirth, and the novella Ethan Fromme. Although less known by the average reader, one of her most influential works is The Decoration of Houses, a book she co-wrote with architect Ogden Codman in 1897. Furthermore, her true chef d’œuvre was her home, named The Mount in Lenox, Mass., which Wharton carefully designed with Codman, drawing upon the methods outlined years earlier in The Decoration of Houses.

The Decoration of Houses was every bit as revolutionary as the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, both of which aimed to spotlight the less desirable byproducts of being among the social elite. Decoration was considered for decades the Bible of good taste. “It’s not an overstatement to say that it is the most important decorating book ever written,” said contemporary architect Thomas Jayne in 2018. Decoration outlines rules for good design, focusing on interior spaces. 

At its root, the book is a cry against excesses seen in the Gilded Age, and it tackles the problem overtly while her fictional works delved into the gluttony of the age more subtly. 

Architecturally, Wharton felt that homes had taken a turn for the worse. Everything was ornate; it had become difficult for someone entering an interior space to figure out where to focus her gaze. Between bric-a-brac, tufted furniture, clutter, gilded everything, large curtains, decorated ceilings, walls, and floors—everything demanded attention, everything was enormous in scale, and the result was a cluttered look. Undoubtedly, those kinds of interior spaces would overwhelm the senses in every way. 

Wharton was a behaviorist who believed that humans evolve as a product of their environment. In a speech she gave when she received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1923, the first woman to receive that honor, Wharton said, “A street, a room, is an event in the history of the soul.” 

Wharton illustrates this belief consistently in her writings, comparing people to their surroundings. In an early short story, “The Fullness of Life,” Wharton wrote, “I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms….in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.” 

Decorations advocated for simplicity in design and of practical spaces that work with the laws of harmony and proportion. The Mount reflects these design principles, and Wharton and Codman drew upon English, French, and Italian influences in the design of the home and its gardens. Walking through the home is meant to be an experience as dramatic as reading one of Wharton's novels. 

“Thus all good architecture and good decoration (which, it must never be forgotten, is only interior architecture) must be based on rhythm and logic,” wrote Wharton and Codman in Decoration. They go on to instruct, “In the private house, modest materials should be used elegantly, and elegant materials modestly.”

To illustrate these points, one needs to look no further than the entry vestibule at The Mount. In the homes of the social elite, these areas were meant to immediately wow visitors, such as the impressively sculpted, iron doorway at Marble House in Newport, R.I., followed by the exquisite marble and fine art in the foyer. Not so at The Mount. As Wharton wrote in Decoration, “While the main purpose of a door is to admit, the secondary purpose is to exclude.” In her home, the entry vestibule is narrow and grotto-like, lined with chairs where visitors could wait in calm to be seen by the homeowner. 

Wharton pardons the library from the rules for simplicity; after all, all writers love a library, and Wharton was no different. “There is no reason why the decorations of a library should not be splendid, but in that case the books must be splendid too, and sufficient in number to dominate all the accessory decorations of the room,” Wharton wrote. 

The library at The Mount features built-in bookshelves made of expensive quarter-sawn oak, with “intricately hand-carved decorative cartouche atop.” The books contained therein were as elaborate as the room that housed them. The Edith Wharton Restoration (the group dedicated to preserving The Mount) paid $2.6 million in 2005 to return 2,700 of her original books to the estate from a castle in Kent, England.

The decoration in The Mount’s library serves a purpose, a direct contrast to the excessiveness described in high society in Wharton’s books. Wharton describes in The Age of Innocence, “the Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball-room…the possession of a ball-room that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.” 

At the Mount, the gardens are the centerpiece of the estate—not a ballroom—with the house designed to offer peeks at certain garden views or, in the case of the wide verandah, to physically sweep the house’s residents into the outdoors. “I am amazed at the success of my efforts,” Wharton wrote to her lover, Morton Fullerton, of The Mount. “Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth…”

It was here in the gardens that I first sat down to read The House of Mirth for the first time, bees swirling as they pollinated a wide array of mid-summer flowers carefully placed around the serpentine fountain. The Mount features various garden landscapes, including a sunken Italian Garden with greenery shaped around porticos and alcoves in stone walls. A French Flower Garden bursts with colorful perennial flowers around a rectangular pool and dolphin fountain. A Rock Garden featuring native plants works its way up the hill towards where the home towers overhead. 

Gardens, as well as interiors, feature heavily in Wharton’s literary works. In The House of Mirth, Wharton writes, “The terrace of Bellomont on a September afternoon was a spot propitious to sentimental musings, and as Miss Bart stood leaning against the balustrade above the sunken garden…she might have been lost in the mazes of an inarticulate happiness.”  

The Mount, Wharton’s chef d’œvre, is “a very important place for the creation of what one might say is some of the great works of American fiction.” After all, all Wharton’s characters are creatures of their physical surroundings. If The Mount is the manifestation of Wharton’s character, then Wharton’s soul must have been beautiful indeed.

Edith Wharton


Sources

Significant effort goes into ensuring the information shared in Bidwell Hollow’s content 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.

Sol Yurick

Edgar Allan Poe

Maya Angelou at 1993 U.S. Presidential Inauguration

Edith Wharton


Notable Literary Births & Events for Jan. 18-24

Jan. 18

  • Jorge Guillén

  • A.A. Milne

  • Jon Stallworthy

  • Binyavanga Wainaina

  • Sol Yurick

Jan. 19

  • Julian Barnes

  • Nina Bawden

  • Patricia Highsmith

  • Edgar Allan Poe

  • Casey Sherman

Jan. 20

  • Edward Hirsch

  • Tami Hoag

  • Susan Vreeland

  • Robert Frost recites "Gift Outright" at U.S. Presidential inauguration (1961)

  • Maya Angelou becomes the first African-American woman to recite a poem at a U.S. Presidential inauguration (1993)

Jan. 21

  • Olav Aukrust

  • Gretel Ehrlich

  • Judith Merril

  • Paul Quarrington

  • Yordan Radichkov

  • Eliza R. Snow

  • Ludwig Thoma

Jan. 22

  • Lord Byron

  • John Donne

  • Arkady Gaidar

  • Margaret Hillert

  • Robert E. Howard

  • Helen Hoyt

  • Howard Moss

  • Vladimír Oravsky

  • Joseph Wambaugh

  • Francis Wheen

Jan. 23

  • Alan Cheuse

  • Phillip Knightley

  • Tom Reamy

  • Derek Walcott

  • Roots TV miniseries based on Alex Haley's novel of the same name debuts on ABC (1977)

Jan. 24

  • Vicki Baum

  • Charles Boardman Hawes

  • E.T.A. Hoffman

  • C.L. Moore

  • Edith Wharton

  • "The Grapes of Wrath" film based on John Steinbeck's novel premieres in NYC (1940)