Today in Literary History: Jan. 16-19

Susan Sontag, William Stafford, A.A. Milne, and Edgar Allan Poe

Here’s what happened in literary history for Jan. 16-19, 2020.


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Jan. 16

Susan Sontag

The Fall 1964 issue of The Partisan Review published an essay by Susan Sontag titled, “Notes on ‘Camp.’” In it, Sontag labeled as Camp a “sensibility” that’s “unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it.” Sontag cited Tiffany lamps, Flash Gordon comics, and the ballet “Swan Lake” as examples of Camp.

Sontag was, at that time, an unknown writer. The year before, in 1963, she published her first novel, The Benefactor. But “Notes on ‘Camp’ created such a stir that Time Magazine took notice of the essay in its Dec. 11, 1964 issue. A piece in that edition’s Modern Living section read, “The modern dandy, on the other hand, revels detachedly and deliciously in the vulgarity of mass culture. And the word is not dandyism any more. According to one of Manhattan’s brightest young intellectuals, Novelist Susan Sontag, the word is ‘Camp.’”

Sontag included “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in her 1966 essay collection, Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. She produced a second novel, Death Kit, in 1967. And in 2000, she won a National Book Award in Fiction for In America.

But Sontag’s reputation and fame as a writer came mostly through her essays. She was an active cultural observer and critic. Sontag wrote about topics such as photography, AIDS, European film, and torture. Along with books, her writing appeared in periodicals such as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, and The Partisan Review.

And Sontag’s fame exceeded that expected of a critic. She photographed well and appeared on magazine covers and in New York tabloids. In 1983, she played herself in a Woody Allen film. Saturday Night Live skits referenced her. And Kevin Costner’s character in the movie “Bull Durham” mentioned her. (Albeit, the “Bull Durham” comment on Sontag is unflattering. Costner’s character said, “that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent overrated crap.”)

Sontag was born as Susan Rosenblatt on Jan. 16, 1933, in New York. Her father died when she was five, though, and her mother raised Sontag and her sister in Florida, Tucson, Ariz., and then southern California. Sontag took her stepfather’s surname, although he never adopted her.

Sontag died in 2004, but the 1964 essay that made her famous continues to make a mark. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s theme for its 2019 Met Gala was “Notes on Camp.” It celebrated the opening of a new exhibit at the Met, Camp: Notes on Fashion.

Jan. 17

William Stafford

Jan. 17 is the birthday of a poet who wrote in his journal every day for 50 years. At first, William Stafford thought he might use what he wrote in poems. But that ended up not being the case. “I am always enticed forward by the ideas of this day rather than the ideas that are preserved in the journal,” Stafford said.

Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kan., in 1914. He earned an English degree at the University of Kansas. And when World War II broke out, Stafford declared himself a conscientious objector. The government sent him to labor camps in Arkansas, Illinois, and then California.

It was at a camp in Santa Barbara, Calif., that Stafford met Dorothy Frantz. She was the daughter of a minister who visited the camp. The night they met, Stafford asked Frantz to take a moonlit walk along a dry creek bed. Both connected over their shared appreciation of Willa Cather’s writing. And after five dates, Stafford asked Frantz to marry him.

Stafford returned to the University of Kansas after the war. He earned a master’s degree and later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He then taught at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Ore., from 1958 until his retirement in 1980.

Along with teaching, Stafford wrote. His 1962 poetry collection, Traveling Through the Dark, won a National Book Award. He served as Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress from 1970 to 1971. In total, he published 65 books of prose and poems. He wrote 22,000 poems, at one point claiming he wrote a poem a day.

An interview asked Stafford what made him want to be a poet. Stafford replied by saying, “You know when we are kids we make up things, we write, and for me, the puzzle is not that some people are still writing, the real question is why did the other people stop?”

William Stafford passed away in 1993. He stayed married to Dorothy until the end, a marriage that lasted 49 years. One year less than Stafford wrote every day in his journal.

Jan. 18

A.A. Milne

If A.A. Milne had stopped writing in 1923, today we’d remember him as a playwright. He’d written by that time 18 plays, many of which were well received. But that year’s Jan. edition of Vanity Fair carried a poem Milne wrote titled, “Vespers.” The poem contained the line, “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.” The following year, Milne included “Vespers” in his book of children’s poetry, When We Were Very Young. The collection came out in 1924.

Then the Christmas Eve 1925 edition of The London Evening News carried a story by Milne titled “The Wrong Sort of Bees.” It begins with Christopher Robin, Milne’s son, dragging his teddy bear down the stairs. Robin asks his father to tell him a story about the bear, whom the child names Winnie-the-Pooh. And Robin’s dad invents a story about Pooh in the forest trying to steal honey.

Milne expanded on “The Wrong Sort of Bees” by giving the forest where Pooh lived a name, the Hundred Acre Wood. And he created more characters, such as Eeyore, a depressed donkey, and Piglet.

Winnie-the-Pooh, his friends, and Christopher Robin appeared in the book, Winnie-the-Pooh. It came out in Oct. 1926. Cartoonist E.H. Shepard, a friend of Milne’s from when they both worked at Punch magazine 12 years earlier, provided the illustrations.

The book was an instant hit. Its first run sold 32,000 copies, which was a lot at that time. And 150,000 copies of Winnie-the-Pooh sold by the end of 1926 in the U.S. alone.

Milne wrote a second Pooh book, The House at Pooh Corner. It came out in 1928 and proved as triumphant as its predecessor. Both books made a star of the real-life Christopher Robin.

Fans of the books sent Christopher mail, which his parents asked him to answer. At seven, he recorded readings of the Pooh books. Upon request, he recited parts of the book at parties and acted in a play based on the Pooh stories.

But by the time he attended boarding school, Christopher started resenting the attention. The other boys teased and bullied him. Some boys taunted Christopher by playing one of the recordings from when he was younger.

The fame that his father’s books brought upon Christopher strained their relationship. It’s a story told in the 2017 film, “Goodbye Christopher Robin.” As an adult, Christopher stayed in touch with his father. But the two remained distant for the rest of Milne’s life.

A.A. Milne was born on Jan. 18, 1882, in London. He died on Jan. 31, 1956, in Sussex, England. As of 2017, more than 20 million of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books have sold in 50 languages.

Jan. 19

Edgar Allan Poe

On Mar. 6, 1842, Charles Dickens wrote a letter to Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was at the time editor of Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine. He’d sent books and papers for Dickens to enjoy. And he’d written positive reviews of Dickens’s novels, including Barnaby Rudge.

The novel came out in 1841. It takes place in London during the Gordon Riots of 1780. And the book’s title character has a pet raven named Grip. Poe praised Barnaby Rudge in his Feb. 1842 review, and called Grip “intensely amusing.”

And so as he prepared for a six-month visit to the U.S., Dickens wrote to Poe. He opens the letter with, “I shall be very glad to see you whenever you will do me the favor to call.” Dickens thanked Poe for the reading materials he sent. Then Dickens adds, “I have the greater pleasure in expressing my desire to see you on this account.”

Dickens, his wife Catherine, and their children came to America in 1842. By that time, Dickens’s pet raven, Grip, was dead. He died the year before, but Dickens had the bird stuffed and placed in a glass box overlooking his writing desk. And Grip lived on in a portrait of the Dickens family, which accompanied them to the New World.

The Dickens family stayed at the United States Hotel in Philadelphia. It’s there in 1842 that Poe and Dickens met for the first time. We don’t know much about what they discussed. But Poe may have learned that the raven from Barnaby Rudge had been a real-life pet of Dickens’.

And that raven, named Grip, may have inspired Poe to write a poem that made him famous. The poem is “The Raven,” which Poe sold to a magazine for publishing. But a newspaper, The Evening Mirror, scooped the magazine by publishing a pirated copy of the poem. “The Raven” first appeared on Jan. 29, 1845.

“The Raven” was a hit. A lack of copyright protection, though, meant Poe received little money for his poem’s success. In need of work, Poe wrote Dickens in 1846. He asked if the novelist could help him get a job as an American correspondent for a British newspaper.

Dickens declined, telling Poe he had little connection to the media outlet. “Any such proposition as yours, therefore, must be addressed to the Editor,” Dickens wrote. “I do not know, for certain, how that gentleman might regard it, but I should say that he probably has as many correspondents in America and elsewhere, as the Paper can afford space to.”

Three years later, Edgar Allan Poe, born on Jan. 19, 1809, died. His mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, survived him. Dickens returned to America in 1868. He visited Clemm and gave her what scholars believe to be a large amount of money.


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Susan Sontag

William Meredith

A.A. Milne

Edgar Allan Poe