Today in Literary History: Feb. 3-5

Gertrude Stein, James A. Michener, E.J. Pratt, William S. Burroughs

Here are your Today in Literary History stories from Bidwell Hollow for Feb. 3-5. 


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Feb. 3

Gertrude Stein

On Oct. 24, 1934, the S.S. Champlain docked in New York City. Reporters crowded the port to receive the ship’s famous passenger, Gertrude Stein. Stein hadn’t stepped foot on American soil in 31 years.

Having been born on Feb. 3, 1874, near Pittsburgh, Pa., Stein moved to Paris in 1903 with her brother, Leo. Another brother, Michael, and his wife Sarah joined them. Gertrude lived with Leo for six years before moving into a place at 27 rue de Fleurus with Alice B. Toklas. There, Toklas and Stein collected art and hosted salons. They engaged with artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce.

Stein, too, was a writer. Her first book, Three Lives, is a collection of three novellas. It came out in 1909 but didn’t receive much attention. It wasn’t until Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 that Americans knew her name.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a fictional autobiography. The book is about Stein told from Toklas’s viewpoint. Readers loved the work, which became a best seller and made its author famous.

The book’s success is what Stein back to the U.S. in 1934 for a 191-day tour. Stein traveled the country by car, plane, and train accompanied by her partner, Toklas.

Before leaving Paris, Stein’s friend, Bernard Faÿ, had helped her prepare for public speaking. Faÿ was a French historian who’d known Stein since 1926. He’d also lectured in the U.S., and so he worked with Stein before she embarked on her American tour.

Stein traversed the U.S., delivering 74 lectures in 37 cities and 23 states. She averaged two to three talks per week, in which she covered topics such as writing and modern art. Stein and Toklas concluded their visit to America in 1935, setting sail from New York to France on May 4 of that year. Faÿ wasn’t through helping his friend Stein, through.

Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940. Stein’s friends encouraged her to evacuate. She was, after all, Jewish and a lesbian, a likely target of the Nazi’s campaigns against Jews and homosexuals.

Stein and Toklas chose to stay in the country, but they left Paris for Bilignin, France. Located 65 miles east of Lyon, Bilignin was in the Free Zone of Vichy, France. The Vichy Regime was a Nazi puppet government run by a former French general named Philippe Pétain.

Stein worked for Pétain, translating his speeches from French to English. And in letters she wrote during this time, she called herself a “propagandist” for “new France.” The work Stein did for the Vichy Regime may be one reason she and Toklas escaped arrest by the Nazis. Her friendship with Faÿ is another.

Faÿ was a Nazi sympathizer who supported the Vichy Regime. He lobbied Pétain to protect his friend, Stein, and her partner, Toklas. Faÿ also gave Stein tickets to buy bread and helped her keep her driving privileges.

After the war, Stein and Toklas returned to Paris, receiving no punishment for their actions during the Regime. But authorities from the reinstated French government arrested Pétain and Faÿ.

A jury in 1945 sentenced Pétain to death and Faÿ, in 1946, to life in prison. That same year, Gertrude Stein passed away, survived by Toklas.

Then on Sep. 30, 1951, Faÿ escaped from a French prison. Part of the money funding his escape came from an old friend: Alice B. Toklas.

James A. Michener

Every time there’s a production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, Swarthmore College makes money. That’s because James A. Michener is one of the school’s alums. And South Pacific’s based on a book he wrote.

That book was Tales of the South Pacific. It’s a collection of stories Michener wrote based on his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. The book came out in 1947 when Michener was 40 years old. Its first edition only sold about 25,000 copies. But Tales of the South Pacific won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

And the book attracted the attention of Broadway producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Both were coming off a colossal failure, a flop titled Allegro. But they had a hit on their hands with their adaption of Michener’s story collection.

South Pacific opened at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Conn., on Mar. 7, 1949. It debuted on Broadway in April that year, and the musical was the talk of the town. Lines formed to get tickets at 7 a.m. each morning. And souvenir shops sold fake ticket stubs for people who wanted to pretend they’d seen the show.

The production’s success boosted sales of Michener’s book. The paperback version of Tales of the South Pacific became a bestseller. It sold more than two million copies. It was a harbinger for the rest of Michener’s writing career.

The author published Hawaii in 1959, the same year, Hawaii became the United States’ 50th state. The book was the first of what became a model Michener novel, a lengthy saga following generations of a family. The Book-of-the-Month Club highlighted Hawaii. And it became a 1966 film starring Julie Andrews.

Michener went on to write bestselling novels such as Chesapeake, Texas, and Alaska. His books made Michener millions, and he and his wife, Mari, spent a lot of time giving it away. For example, the author’s hometown of Doylestown, Pa., is home to the James A. Michener Art Museum. Philanthropy is also why Swarthmore College gets paid when someone produces South Pacific.

When Michener died in 1997, hef left most of his estate to his alma mater, Swarthmore College. The gift includes royalties and copyrights to his books, including Tales of the South Pacific. Every time a theater group puts on the musical, South Pacific, they pay a royalty to the school. A 2013 estimate put the value of Michener’s donation at $35 million.

Michener listed his date of birth as Feb. 3, 1907. But he never knew for sure when he was born or who his parents were. A widower named Mabel Haddock Michener raised him in Doylestown. “I have no idea who I am,” Michener said. “I know what I was told, that I was a foundling.”

Feb. 4

E.J. Pratt

The steamer Greenland pulled into the harbor at St. John’s, Newfoundland, on Mar. 27, 1898. Its deck held 25 corpses, and 55 frostbitten men huddled in its hold. The men were seal hunters, returning from a disastrous expedition on the ice flows north of the city. Standing on the deck watching the ship dock was 15-year-old Edwin John Pratt.

Pratt was the son of a Methodist minister. A few years after the Greenland arrived with its load of dead bodies, Pratt headed to Toronto for school. He graduated from Victoria College with a philosophy degree in 1911. And he earned his Ph.D. in theology in 1917.

But witnessing the result of the Greenland disaster stayed with Pratt. He started writing poetry, and he based one of his poems on the calamity from 1898. Pratt included that piece, “The Ice-Floes,” in his first public collection, Newfoundland Verse. He published the book in 1923 under the name, E.J. Pratt.

For the next three decades, Pratt taught at the University of Toronto. And he kept writing poetry. His early work reflected his years growing up in New Foundland, with the sea dominating his verse.

World War II inspired much of Pratt’s poetry in the 1940s. His books from this period include Dunkirk, Still Life and Other Verse, and They Are Returning. For this work, Pratt received in 1946 the Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George from King George VI.

Pratt was born on Feb. 4, 1883, in Western Bay, Newfoundland. Many regard him as one of the most-significant Canadian poets of all time. A library at the University of Toronto, where Pratt taught, carries his name. So does the E.J. Pratt Medal in Poetry, awarded to a student at the school. Among the medal’s recipients is Margaret Atwood, who won the award in 1961.

Feb. 5

William S. Burroughs

Feb. 5 is the birthday of a writer who’s on the cover of The Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. William S. Burroughs was born in 1914 in St. Louis, Mo. He was a member of “The Beats,” which included writers Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac.

Naked Lunch is Burroughs’s best-known book. The novel came out in 1962, its title based on a misreading of the writer’s manuscript. While going through Burrough’s draft, Ginsburg read the phrase, “naked lust,” as “naked lunch.”

Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch from notes he took over 15 years as a heroin addict. The novel’s story is about William Lee, who suffers from drug addiction. The book contains scenes of sex, violence, and drug use.

A Massachusetts judge ruled Naked Lunch obscene in 1965. The Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned the ruling the following year. Writers including Norman Mailer testified in defense of Burroughs and his novel.

Mailer had a few things in common with Burroughs. Both were writers, yes, but both men had also attacked their wives. Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, in New York City in 1960. And Mailer killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.

The killing took place one afternoon. Burroughs, Vollmer, and some friends spent the day drinking. Inebriated, Burroughs took out a handgun and said to Vollmer, “It’s time for our William Tell act.” Vollmer put a glass of water on her head. Burroughs pulled the trigger, and the bullet entered Vollmer’s forehead. She died instantly.

Mexican authorities ruled Vollmer’s death an accident. They let Burroughs go, and he spent time wandering through the Amazon region of South America. “The death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice but to write my way out,” Burroughs said.

Burroughs kicked his heroin addiction in 1959. He published Naked Lunch and produced other novels, including 1971’s The Wild Boys and Place of Dead Roads in 1983. Burroughs’s writing influenced many musicians, including Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

Burroughs associated with McCartney while the writer lived in London in 1966. Burroughs claimed he witness McCartney writing the song, “Eleanor Rigby.” Burroughs said, “I saw the song taking shape. Once again, not knowing much about music, I could see that he knew what he was doing.”

And in 1967, The Beatles released their eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. British artist Peter Blake and his then-wife, Jann Haworth, designed the cover. It features 58 people, one of whom is Burroughs. The writer’s face appears top-center, next to Marilyn Monroe.

Burroughs settled in Lawrence, Kan. It’s there that he passed away on Aug. 2, 1997.


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Gertrude Stein

James A. Michener

E.J. Pratt

William S. Burroughs