Today in Literary History: Jan. 9-12, 2020

Reading time: 6 minutes

Here are your literary history highlights from Bidwell Hollow for Jan. 9-12.


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Free editions of Literary Stories left: 8

January 9

William Meredith

William Meredith called himself a “B” poet, but sometimes he felt he created “A” poems. One such poem, Meredith said, was “Parents.” He wrote it in 1975 after having Thanksgiving dinner with fellow Connecticut College professor Janet Gezari, her then-husband, and her parents.

Later recalling the dinner, Gezari wrote, “What it must be like to have so observant a poet at the table we can all imagine. How sharply, and how humanely, he observed the habits of new parents bringing together their own parents and introducing friends with whom their relations were not so long but perhaps as deep, though outside the covenant of generation.”

Meredith flew planes for the Navy during World War II and the Korean War. Yale University Press released Meredith’s first book of poems, Love Letter From an Impossible Land, in 1944. A second collection followed in 1948. And when he retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander in 1955, Meredith started teaching at Connecticut College.

Meredith befriended other poets over the years. His poetic friends included Robert Frost, John Berryman, Muriel Rukeyser, and Robert Lowell. Many of them sent their work to Meredith for his input. And for years, poets gave readings at Connecticut College as a guest of Meredith’s.

But in 1983, a stroke forced Meredith to retire. After two years of immobility, he regained partial ability to write and speak. Meredith published in 1987 his eighth poetry collection, Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems. It won a Pulitzer Prize.

Meredith continued to work over the years. He even gave two readings in April 2007, a month before he passed away. After his death, Richard Harteis, Meredith’s partner of 36 years, started the William Meredith Foundation. And Harteis wrote a memoir based on their life together, Marathon. A film of the same name based on the book came out in 2008.

January 10

Robinson Jeffers

The front page of the Feb. 28, 1913, issue of the Los Angeles Times carried a headline reading, “Love’s Gentle Alchemy to Weld Broken Lives.” The article covered an affair between Una Kuster, the wife of a well-known L.A. lawyer, and John Robinson Jeffers.

The next day’s newspaper contained a follow-up piece, also on the front page. This time the headline read, “Two Points of the Eternal Triangle.” It also featured a photo of the two lovers and one of Jeffers’s poems, “On the Cliff.” The piece begins:

Ah, how sweetly the day passed

Our day, our one sweet day that would not last

Una escaped to Europe after the scandal broke. She returned to L.A. after a few months, and her husband divorced her on Aug. 1, 1913. She married Robinson Jeffers the following day.

The Jefferses planned to move to Europe. But it was 1914 and World War I broke out. So the newlyweds instead moved up the Pacific Coast to Carmel, Calif. where a small artist community prospered.

For five years the Jefferses lived in a log cabin. There Una gave birth to twin boys. And then, in 1919, the family bought land at Carmel Point on the coastline. They hired a stonemason to build them a house, and Robinson Jeffers worked as the builder’s subcontractor. Using what he learned, Jeffers later built a stone tower for his wife and sons.

Along with stonemasonry, Robinson Jeffers continued writing poetry. His 1924 volume Tamar and Other Poems was well received, and it brought Jeffers to many people’s attention. For the next decade, he produced many new books of poems. Robinson’s popularity grew with each one.

Robinson once again became front-page news on April 4, 1932. Instead of the Los Angeles Times, though, this time, he was on the cover of Time Magazine. And the reason for being on the cover was his poetry, not his relationship with Una.

Robinson produced less poetry from the late 1930s through World War II. And his political opinions put him at odds with much of the country. He declined to sign a letter in 1937 that denounced actions by the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. The letter ran in The New York Times. Famous writers such as William Faulkner and Langston Hughes endorsed it. But Robinson didn’t. He said he didn’t want to pick a side in the conflict.

The poet remained noncommittal and silent during World War II. As Robinson later said, “I decided not to tell lies in verse not to feign any emotion that I did not feel; not to pretend to believe in optimism or pessimism, or unreversible progress; not to say anything because it was popular, or generally accepted, or fashionable in intellectual circles, unless I myself believed it, and not to believe easily.”

By the mid-20th century, a decreasing number of people read Robinson Jeffers’s work. Many still today have never heard of the poet. But over the past 15 years, there’s been an effort by some to raise awareness of Robinson’s art. Stanford University Press published two books, one in 2003 and another in 2012, highlighting Robinson’s poetry.

Robinson Jeffers was born on Jan. 10, 1887. He died in 1962 at the stone house he and Una had built in Carmel. The property, called Tor House, still stands.

January 11

J.K. Rowling Finishes the Final Harry Potter Book

On Jan. 11, 2007, in The Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, J.K. Rowling finished writing the seventh and final Harry Potter book. Rowling was working on the book at home when barking dogs and noisy kids caused her to move. She booked a room at The Balmoral, though few knew the author was there at the time.

Rowling stayed in Room 652, which featured a marble bust. After finishing the last Potter book, Rowling scribbled in marker on the statue. She wrote, “J.K. Rowling finished writing ‘Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows’ in this room on 11 Jan 2007.”

The signed statue remains in Room 652, now called the J.K. Rowling Suite. Also still in the suite is the desk where Rowling wrote. Something new, though, is an owl door knocker. Fans of the Potter books know that owls play a significant role in the series. Rates for the suite starts at £1,500 a night, about $1,977.

The book Rowling finished at The Balmoral became Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It came out on July 21, 2007. Within 24 hours, 8.3 million copies of the book sold in the U.S., making it the fastest-selling fiction book in history.

There are 1,100,086 words in all seven of the Harry Potter books. The first Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.), hit stores in the United Kingdom on June 26, 1997. As of Feb. 2018, more than 500 million copies of the Potter books have sold.

January 12

Walter Mosley

Jan. 12 is the birthday of a writer whose first book became a movie starring Denzel Washington. Walter Mosley didn’t start writing until he was 34. Four years later, in 1990, he published his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. A film based on the book came out in 1995.

With Devil in a Blue Dress, Mosley introduced the character “Easy” Rawlins, a private detective from the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Fourteen of Mosley’s books feature Rawlins. The most recent is 2016’s Charcoal Joe.

Mosley’s published 55 books. Most of his stories feature black American characters and culture, about which Mosley said, “One of the bad things about America, and I benefit from it, is that whenever you’re telling a real story about a black person or a group of black people in America, it probably hasn’t been written.”

Mosley’s also a writer and contributing producer on the F.X. show “Snowfall.” The drama showcases the early 1980s crack epidemic in South Central L.A. The late John Singleton, a creator of “Snowfall,” asked Mosley to work on the program. “He said that he wanted me to come in and sit in the room, and I want you to respond to things that are happening,” Mosley said. “I need you to be my other side basically in the room.”

Along with being a bestselling author, Mosley’s won an O. Henry Award and a Grammy. In 2016 he received a PEN America Lifetime Achievement Award. But he doesn’t plan to stop. “I’ve published 55 books, and I’m still writing them,” Mosley said. “I have three yet to come out. That’s what I do.”


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William Meredith

Robinson Jeffers

J.K. Rowling Finishes Final Harry Potter Book

Walter Mosley