Category Archives: Authors and Books

Jack London: The Traveling Outdoorsman

By Allan Cross, Reference Department

Jack London

It now seems intuitive that Jack London would dream of living in a rustic setting. As a journalist, writer, and public speaker, London knew both renown and controversy. His output established him as a man of adventure, who expressed his beliefs with drive and vehemence. On January 12, 1876, London was born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco, California. His mother bore him out of wedlock and later changed his last name to that of his stepfather, John London, but from his earliest years, they referred to the boy as “Jack.”

The adolescent Jack London thrived on curiosity, which transcended the bounds of his blue-collar upbringing. Hours spent at libraries developed the young London’s mind, while instilling in him another desire: to travel. By the age of 17, he had gone on a sealing voyage in the Pacific. The trip was a professional catastrophe, but London and his shipmates returned home alive. The budding scribe jotted down his maritime story and used it to win a local writing contest. So began Jack London’s method of drawing themes from Mother Nature.

As he matured, London’s exploration only increased. After spending some time on the East Coast, he returned to California and attended UC Berkeley. London did not graduate, instead heading to the Yukon at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. This period in Canada supplied material for his novel, The Call of the Wild.

Jack London’s cabin in the Yukon

After the success of Call of the Wild, London was in demand and had made a fair amount of money. His innate ruggedness led him to avoid urban life. Like Thoreau before him, London sought out a countryside retreat, finding one of his own in Sonoma County, California. Here he purchased a ranch and lived in a small cottage, while conceiving plans to build an estate, Wolf House, on the property.

Though he no longer stood destitute, London still identified with the problems of working people. He didn’t hide his leftist views. London gave many lectures critical of capitalism. He also penned combative works that took on the upper class. London stayed always a fighter for the underdog. He never lost interest in travel, going as a newspaperman to cover the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.

London married twice. He and his second wife, Charmian, once made a grand escape across the Pacific. Their destinations included Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, and Australia. Unfortunately, London’s heavy drinking and extreme pursuits took their toll, forcing him to back off from seafaring. London returned to Sonoma County, where he resumed construction of Wolf House.

In the year 1913, an accidental fire destroyed the still incomplete Wolf House. London was aging fast and construction of the estate never restarted. The end of that dream disappointed him, but London’s intrepid fervor remained. He continued to explore, in spite of his doctors’ advice. Nature kept providing London with a foundation for stories, though at a growing personal cost.

Jack London’s gravesite

On November 22, 1916, Jack London passed away of kidney disease at the age of 40. His ranch has since become part of the Jack London State Historic Park. London’s cottage, a quantity of his belongings, and the shell of Wolf House remain preserved there. By reviewing London’s life, one might better understand the task of all writers: to hit upon the balance of careful refinement and unfettered inspiration.


Sources:

 

(All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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When Ronny Met Jacksie: Narnia and Middle Earth

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

I’m definitely a fantasy genre lover. I always have been, going all the way back to when my dad first read The Hobbit to me when I was little. While I have broadened my reading horizons considerably, I still love to pick up a fantasy novel and slide into a world of warriors and dragons. As such, I have a special soft spot for the patron saints of fantasy literature; Tolkien, Lewis, Pratchett, Jordan, Le Guin, White, and Rowling. These men and women carry on a tradition of storytelling that goes back to a time of oral history and fireside stories of fantastic heroes and the even more outlandish creatures that either aid them or seek to destroy them. It was very surprising to me, many years ago, to learn that two of these men, Lewis and Tolkien, not only knew one another, but were friends.

C.S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis, known to his family as Jack, was born in northern Ireland. His nickname actually belonged to the family dog, Jacksie, which was killed when Lewis was four. He lost his mother to cancer at age nine, and was sent to boarding school after boarding school by his father. He abandoned the Christianity of his youth and escaped into stories of fantasy. He started with anthropomorphic animals like Peter Rabbit, and then developed a fascination with Scandinavian mythology and stories followed by the same for Greece and Ireland. When he first went to Oxford, he joined the officer cadet corps and quickly found himself a second lieutenant in the Somme. In early 1918 he was wounded by a British shell that fell well short of its target, and he spent the rest of the war in England.

J.R.R. Tolkein

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had a similar childhood. His parents had moved to South Africa not long before his birth, but this quintessentially British author returned to England at age three on what was supposed to have been an extended family visit. It proved permanent when his father died in South Africa before he could join the family. Ronald, as his family referred to him, grew up in a series of homes in and around Birmingham. After his mother’s conversion to Catholicism and then death, he was raised by Father Francis Xavier Morton. After getting married and finishing his education, Tolkien found himself a second lieutenant and posted to France. By 1916 he had contracted Trench Fever, and split most of his time between infirmaries and light duty.

The Eagle and Child pub (commonly known as the Bird and Baby or simply just the Bird) in Oxford where the Inklings met informally on Tuesday mornings during term.

So we end up with two men, in the same department of a university, who experienced some of the worst the Great War had to offer, both of whom lost a parent while very young. So when these two men found themselves in Tolkien’s Coalbiters Club for people who enjoyed reading the Old Icelandic sagas, it was natural for them to gravitate towards each other, which led Tolkien to spend time with Lewis’s group, The Inklings. Opinions on how the dynamic between the two men worked varies between scholars. You find Lewis dominating The Inklings in some and Tolkien listening quietly and issuing sharp criticism in others. However, the one common theme is the interplay. These men helped each other grow as writers and world crafters. Their works went on to profoundly influence one another, to the point where Tolkien’s Numenor and a Saruman cognate ended up in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.

This is not to say the two men never disagreed. Tolkien’s first proposal to Oxford was rejected and one of the votes that turned it away was Lewis’s.  According to Humphrey Carter in his book, The Inklings, Lewis’s thoughts on Tolkien were, “No Harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” Lewis also felt that Tolkien was too mired in the ancient and neglected the renaissance authors and later writers. Tolkien had his own problems with Lewis, as well. Tolkien was an inveterate opponent of allegory and felt Lewis’ Narnia books were vastly too allegorical and that they were contrived and inconsistent. It was at this time that their friendship began to cool.

Without this meeting of two eventual literary giants, we would not have those same literary giants. It was Lewis who suggested that Tolkien turn his children’s story about diminutive people fighting a dragon into what we now know as The Hobbit. Conversely, Tolkien was among the people who convinced Lewis to return to the fold of Christianity. How lucky the world is that the happy accident of their meeting came to pass and we have some of the greatest works of modern English Literature.


Sources and Suggested Reading:

  • R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: A Legendary Friendship
  • Tolkien’s ‘No’ to Narnia
  • The Inklings by Humphrey Carter (823.9CAR)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Beyond the Wardrobe by E. J. Kirk (823.912 KIR)
  • R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons (823.912 PAR)
  • Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth (828.91209 GAR)
  • Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown

Edgar Allan Poe’s Strange Death

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Edgar Allan Poe, famous American author and the first American writer of mysteries, was a mystery himself.  His death is still a mystery.  Not that he died, of course, but exactly how and why.

Poe had never been wealthy from his writings.  From time to time he did well, but the money was gone sooner or later.  One of the problems was the lack of copyright laws.  Anyone could publish his works, poems and short stories, and that person would reap the benefits, not Poe.  And this happened quite often.  His “detective” stories were very popular—everyone wanted to make money from them.  He was, after all, the father of the mystery genre.  There would be no Sherlock Holmes without Poe.

He had to drop out of the University of Virginia for lack of funds (his step-father didn’t give him enough money to complete the year).  He was so poor that he had to burn his dorm furniture to stay warm!! He was engaged to marry Elmira Royster, but when he went to visit her after his first and last year of college, she had become engaged to someone else.  He went back to Baltimore to throw himself upon the mercy of his relatives.  His aunt, Maria Clemm, took him in; she also had a daughter, Virginia, whom Poe developed a passion for.  A job took him to Richmond, VA; there he became the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger.  He became known for his criticisms of authors and their works. He was usually correct, but in this time where for a bribe critics wrote good criticism, he stood out as honest, but also made enemies.  He made one in the Reverend Rufus Griswold.

Virginia Clemm

We have to set the scene a little:  Poe had been living in Richmond, VA, with his Aunt Maria, and his wife, Virginia, who died from Tuberculosis at age 24.  (He had married her when she was 15.)  He was devastated when she died, and didn’t write anything for months.  He was in demand as a speaker and was trying to set up a new literary magazine which he would be editor of.  He returned to Richmond to visit Elmira Royster, the fiancée who had jilted him.  He learned that she was a widow and asked for her hand in marriage (again.)

Poe was on his way to Philadelphia from Richmond to edit some poems for a Mrs. St. Leon Loud.  Then he was to go to New York and bring his aunt down to be with him for his wedding.  His fiancée told him he looked ill, and he did go see a doctor.  Dr. Carter suggested he delay his trip a few days, but he went anyway.  He never made it to either city.  Somehow he ended up in Baltimore, delirious and ill, in dirty ragged clothing, obviously not his own, without any luggage.

He was found outside of a polling place and bar – it was an election day, and this bar was a pop-up station.  You went to vote (correction – the men got to vote) and then have a drink or two.  The man who found Poe recognized him, and sent a letter to a friend of Poe’s, Joseph Snodgrass, who, luckily, had had some medical training. A letter was sent asking him to come at once.  His own person doctor, Dr. Moran, also cared for him as he lay dying.  He spent four days in and out of fever, never able to explain what happened to him.  He did say one word, “Reynolds!!” but no one ever found out who he meant to call for.  He was said to have said out loud, “Lord, help my poor soul,” and died.  As to what cause his death? There are many theories, but no true cause of death was ever found.

As to what might have killed him?  Here is a list of possibilities

  • He could have been mugged, and died from his injuries (there is such a thing called cooping, a form of ballot-box stuffing which involved kidnapping and taking the person to vote at many polling places—many have dismissed this because Poe would have been too well recognized)
  • He could have ingested some kind of poison, either by his own hand of by someone else’s (In 2006, doctors test a sample of his hair and found no evidence of lead or metal poisoning)
  • He could have died from alcoholism – even though he was known to drink moderately.  Like many authors, coffee was his drug for writing late into the night
  • He could have been murdered – this seems to be a bit farfetched since he was in the hospital for four days, but it could have happened
  • He could have died from suicide complications (but why, he was getting married in ten days?)
  • He could have died of rabies or epilepsy
  • He could have died of carbon monoxide poisoning – no one was aware of this issue, and he was known to have burned anything to keep warm
  • He could have had a heart attack, diabetes or even cholera
  • He could even have died from rabies

No autopsy was performed—he was buried two days after he died, and evidently there was a great frenzy to have a lock of his hair as he was taken to the cemetery.  No one has ever found a death certificate—it could have been lost or stolen by Dr. Moran or anyone seeking to have a piece of the great man Poe.  He was buried in an unmarked grave; a headstone was later added, but was destroyed in a wreck.  He was reburied in 1875, with the remains of his wife, Virginia and Aunt Maria.

One final insult to Poe’s memory was the obituary published anonymously, later known to have been written by Reverend Griswold.  Griswold was still very mad at Poe, and in his obituary described Poe as a drunk, a womanizer and a man with no morals.  Unfortunately, this was considered Poe’s real character for over a century, until people began to learn more about what kind of person he really had been.  Unfortunately for Griswold, he never became as famous as Poe, which was all he wanted. Read the rest of this entry

Cozy Up To A Good Mystery – Agatha Christie Style

By Sharon Reily, Reference Department

It’s a chilly Sunday afternoon and the rest of your family is parked in front of the large screen watching a football game. You, however, are nestled into your favorite comfy chair in front of a glowing fireplace, steaming cup of tea in hand, a soft throw over your knees. You sigh happily as you open another installment of your favorite “Miss Marple” mystery series. This singular pleasure was brought to you courtesy of Agatha Christie, one of the creators and the chief purveyor of the mystery genre known as the “Cozy.” Forty-one years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still one of the top-selling authors of all time, with novel sales in the billions. This September marks the 127th anniversary of Agatha’s birth. So in Agatha’s honor, we’ll look at this traditional mystery genre closely associated with her novels, and explore ways to find works by other authors that will appeal to Cozy fans.

The heroine of Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series is a librarian.

Mystery fiction is divided into several major categories. Hard and Soft Boiled Mysteries generally feature a seasoned professional detective who often must contend with personal demons while investigating a crime. Procedurals offer blow-by-blow analysis of how a crime is solved, either by detailed detective legwork or scientific investigation. Thrillers and Suspense novels don’t always hinge on solving a crime or murder that occurs at the start of a novel, but instead focus on some ever-intensifying threat to the protagonist and feature lots of plot twists. There are also countless mystery sub-genres – Capers, Domestic, Historic, Noir, Romantic Suspense and True Crime, to name a few.

And then there are the Cozies. Sometimes called Traditional Mysteries, the Cozies are distinguished from the darker, grittier mystery genres by several crucial characteristics:

  • Instead of a hard-boiled detective, the Cozy crime solver is an amateur sleuth who is almost always a woman. Agatha’s Miss Marple is a prime example. The amateur sleuth usually has some other vocation – caterer, chef, cat fancier, bed and breakfast owner, or librarian.
  • In a Cozy, the setting is key!

    The setting of a Cozy mystery is critical and helps provide the novel its “cozy” character. It is often set in a small rural town or charming village, or in some cases a closed environment such as an isolated estate or even a train. The intimate nature of the setting allows most of the suspects to know each other. Bishop’s Lacey, the quintessential English village featured in Alan Bradley’s delightful Flavia de Luce series, and Cabot Cove, the location of Donald Bain’s “Murder, She Wrote” novels, both illustrate the perfect Cozy setting.

  • Cozies are lighter in tone than other mystery genres. They are considered “gentle” mysteries with little or no graphic violence or explicit sex. The murder almost always happens “off stage” and the victim is sometimes a less-than-sterling character who may have had it coming. Any sex occurs strictly “behind closed doors.” [Quick note: some current Cozies tend to be edgier than earlier examples of the genre.]
  • The amateur sleuth is not a police officer or forensics expert, but almost always has a friend or significant other who is one. Through this friend, our sleuth gains access to information, such as an autopsy report, not usually available to your average person.
  • The local law enforcement tends to underestimate and dismiss the amateur sleuth, allowing her to “casually overhear” key details at a crime scene.
  • Many Cozy Mysteries are parts of series.

    A Cozy usually features a “red herring” – a clue that steers the reader away from the actual criminal or suggests an inaccurate conclusion.

  • The victim and possibly some of the suspects are often known to the amateur sleuth. They could be old college friends or coworkers.
  • Cozies usually boast a cast of colorful, likeable, eccentric secondary characters who are often as important to the reader as the amateur sleuth.
  • Cozy mysteries are often written as parts of a series. Readers become emotionally involved with the amateur sleuth and other recurring characters and feel they’re “coming home” to a familiar place and old friends when they begin their next Cozy. There are MANY series to choose from, but a few notable ones include Agatha’s Miss Marple series, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series, Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, and the previously mentioned Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley (my personal favorite).

    Two intrepid Siamese, Koko and Yum Yum, help their human solve crimes in the “Cat Who” series.

  • Cozies sometimes center around a hobby or theme – everything from cats and the culinary arts to knitting and holidays to tea shops and libraries. A link to a great list of Cozy mysteries arranged by theme is included in “Further Reading” at the end of this article.
  • The good guys usually win and the evil-doers get their comeuppance.

Once you’ve devoured all of Agatha’s Miss Marple mysteries, what’s next?  The list of possibilities is literally endless. To help narrow the field, check out three of Agatha’s contemporaries who helped establish and refine the Traditional Mystery formula and, along with Agatha, comprised the four great “Queens of Crime”:  Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), famous for her Lord Peter Wimsey series, Margery Allingham (1904-1966), known for her Albert Campion series and Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), creator of the Inspector Roderick Alleyn series. WCPL has a good selection of works by each of these writers.

For contemporary Cozy novels, there’s no better place to look than the list of winners and finalists of the annual Agatha Awards. Since 1988, Malice Domestic, an organization celebrating the Traditional Mystery, has honored mysteries that best typify Agatha Christie’s works, defined as mysteries that contain no explicit sex, no excessive gore or gratuitous violence, and can’t be classified as “Hard-Boiled.” The 2015 and 2016 Agatha Awards winners and finalists are listed below with titles available at WCPL noted in bold. A link to the complete list of winners and finalists since the Awards’ inception in 1988 is included below under “Further Reading.”

2016

2015

If you’re already a fan of Cozies or just ready to try them, one thing is certain — you won’t run out of reading material any time soon. See below for lists of works that will keep you reading for years to come. Enjoy…and stay Cozy!

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Mo Books, Mo Fun! The Wonderful World of Mo Willems

By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department

I often say that having the great fortune to be employed in a library—yes, Darling Reader, paid to be here—is a wondrous thing, but it really cuts into one’s reading time.  Library Mythbuster Numero Uno:  we don’t get paid to sit around and read.  What, you think the books get back on the shelves all on their own? And that all library patrons are as smart and savvy as you and don’t need my assistance and expertise?  I’m so sorry to be the one to burst your bubble if you were operating under that premise, and were making career plans accordingly.  We are, however, expected to possess an extensive breadth and depth of knowledge of the materials that are available to patrons, especially in the departments in which we spend our days (and evenings. And weekends.  Library Mythbuster Numero Dos:  this is not a 9-to-5 weekday gig.)  Some of us amass this knowledge through advanced degrees in Library Science and/or work experience in libraries, and others of us learn about the abundance of wonderful children’s books from the hours we spent reading to our own offspring.  (Some of us also have a deep-seated loathing for certain children’s books, usually through no fault of the author but because of the stultifying number of times we have read certain books that our kids loved but that we did NOT.  That’s a topic for a future blog, but I have two words for you in the meantime:  Johnny Tremain.)  It saddens me a little that I missed out on the joy of reading Mo Willems’ books with my children, but I have immensely enjoyed perusing them since signing on to the Children’s Department at WCPL and recommending them to patrons.

If you have children, or have ever spent any time with children, you surely know that they have these acute, finely-tuned internal sensors that enable them to see right through any awkward attempts by adult humans to try to be funny or whimsical or relatable when they just aren’t.  One thing that differentiates Mo Willems’ books from the paper-and-cardboard sea of kiddie lit is that they are very, very funny.  I mean . . . a picture book about a naked mole rat who just wants to express himself through creative sartorial choices?  Come on, people, that’s freaking hilarious, I don’t care who you are.  Willems’ formula works due to the culmination of several factors:  excellent timing, precise word choices, and just-right repetitions of words and phrases.

 

Mo Willems was born in February 1968 in suburban Chicago and grew up in New Orleans.  He graduated cum laude from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.  After graduation, Willems spent a year traveling around the world, and he commemorated this journey by drawing a cartoon each day.  These cartoons were subsequently published in the book You Can Never Find A Rickshaw When It Monsoons.  When he returned to New York after his adventure, Willems began his career as a writer and animator for Sesame Street, where he was awarded six Emmy awards for writing during his tenure from 1993 to 2002.  Since 2003, Willems has authored dozens of books for children, many of which have earned him critical acclaim and numerous literary awards.  (A bibliography of Willems’ books appears at the end of this article.)  My personal favorites include, in no certain order:  the previously mentioned  Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed; Edwina The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was ExtinctKnuffle Bunny:  A Cautionary Tale; and Don’t Let The Pigeon Stay Up Late! Check ‘em out, Darling Reader.  (See what I did there?  Y’all know I couldn’t make it through a blog without a pun.)  Happy reading–

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Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

What’s the best 3D movie:

A Play!

Ever since plays moved to the screen, back when they were black and white with text dialogue, movie makers have been trying to recreate that feeling of being in the middle of the action, of the immediacy of the people on stage.  But no matter what they add (sound, color, 3D effects with glasses), I doubt they will ever be able to recreate the feeling of closeness and investment that you get from attending a play, which is why they’re still amazingly popular today.  So in honor of the longevity and popularity of plays (in particular Shakespeare’s), let’s take a look at one of the most famous stages in history: the Globe Theater.

The Globe Theatre was built in six months in 1599 by William Shakespeare’s company, run by Richard Burbage—Shakespeare had a small stake in the theatre.   It was a three story, open-air amphitheater that could hold up to 3,000 people.  There was standing room area at the front where the poor could watch the play for a penny.  There were three tiers of seats; the fee increased by one penny as the tiers rose.  Those who sat of the fourth tier were paying four pennies, and they were the richest audience members.  They would have to stand up during the whole play.  During bad weather, the plays were put on elsewhere, often at other theatres with roofs.

Then a tragedy occurred on June 29, 1613; London’s Globe Theatre burned down.  Of course, in the time of thatched roofs, wooden building and torches and other open flame lighting, buildings burned down all the time.   The fire started during a performance of Henry VIII, probably when the cannon on stage misfired, (that’s what you call a realistic performance). The sparks caught the thatch on fire and spread rapidly to the wooden beams.  It was lucky that the only reported injury was a man whose pants were on fire; he was able to put them out with a bottle of ale.

In 1614, the Globe theatre was rebuilt by Burbage and Shakespeare, and this theatre was running until 1642, when it was shut down by the Puritans.  All theaters were.  The Puritans outlawed gambling, bawdy plays, prostitution and many more fun activities.  That was one reason, perhaps the main one, which was Cromwell’s downfall.  Charles II reinstated all of the vices, but The Globe was never rebuilt.

In 1949, actor Sam Wanamaker went to see the sight of the original Globe Theatre.  He was very disappointed that there was no memorial to Shakespeare.   In 1970, he formed the Shakespeare Globe Trust, which constructed a replica of the Globe Theatre near the site of the first one.  The theatre opened in 1997; the first play was Henry V.  The theatre still stands today, thanks to much better fire retardant materials!  They did top the roof with thatch though.  It just wouldn’t be right otherwise.

In the 1990, the new Globe Theater was built, some distance away from the site of the first one.  While they were excavating, they found the pit area of the theatre lined with hazelnut shells, the detritus of years of the poor standing room only eating food and dropping the shells.  This did cushion the feet of those standing to watch the plays.

Interesting facts about the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre:

  1. During Shakespeare’s day, theatre companies advertised what plays they were putting on with flags: white for comedy, red for history and black for tragedy.
  2. The city of London did not allow theatres to be built in the city proper.  All theatres were built along the South Bank, where most of them still are today.
  3. The Globe was built to look like the Colosseum in Rome, but on a smaller scale.
  4. The Globe was closed several times because of outbreaks of the plague or the Black Death.

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THE BRONTË BROTHER

Branwell’s portrait of the Brontë sisters. He painted a column over his own likeness in the center, but the image has re-emerged over time. From left to right: Anne, Emily and Charlotte

By Sharon Reily, Reference Department

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë spent much of their short lives cloistered in a small English village parsonage, yet created some of the world’s most important novels, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. But another gifted Brontë sibling, who shared the same upbringing and artistic ambitions as his sisters, failed at almost everything he tried. April 21 marks the 201st anniversary of Charlotte’s birth, but instead of celebrating that landmark, let’s take a look at Patrick Branwell Brontë and the impact he had on the lives and works of the Brontë sisters.

The Brontë Family

Patrick Branwell Brontë (Branwell) was born on June 26, 1817, one of six Brontë children, and the only son. In 1820 his father, Reverend Patrick Brontë, moved his family to the parsonage in Howarth, a village on the edge of West Yorkshire moors. After Branwell’s mother died a year later, his older sisters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily, were sent to school, leaving Branwell and his younger sister Anne at the parsonage. Maria and Elizabeth soon died from tuberculosis, but Charlotte and Emily were brought home before they became ill.

The four surviving Brontë children were extremely close, and their imaginations and creativity flourished in the insulated parsonage. The four created drawings, maps, complex stories, and poems about an imaginary world, Angria, which was inspired by Branwell’s toy soldiers. Branwell and Charlotte collaborated closely on the Angria works, while Anne and Emily created their own fictional world, Gondal. The siblings continued escaping to the elaborate Angria and Gondal sagas into their twenties.

Promising Son

Branwell, slight with flaming red hair, was his father’s favorite, and the Reverend pinned his hopes for the family’s fortune on his son’s accomplishments. He was a fine scholar, described as “brilliant” and “genius.” He aspired to be a famous novelist, poet and painter.

Haworth Parsonage

Failures and Disappointments

In 1838 Branwell set himself up as a portrait painter near Haworth, but failed to earn a living and returned to the parsonage. He was, however, successful as a witty drinking companion for other local young artists. In 1840, Branwell gained work as a tutor with the Postlethwaite family. He spent his free time writing poetry and drinking with friends. He bragged that the family thought him to be a sober, virtuous young gentleman, when the opposite was true. He was fired after six months, when the family learned he had fathered a child (which died) with a local servant girl, and he crept home to Haworth.

Branwell next became “assistant clerk in charge” at a railway station. The Brontës’ hopes for his chances at advancement were dashed when he was fired for incompetence. Again, he returned to Haworth a failure.

In 1843, his youngest sister Anne, working as governess for the Robinson family at Thorp Green Hall, recommended him for a position as a tutor. Unfortunately, Branwell began an affair with his employer’s wife, Lydia. It is uncertain whether he or the much older Mrs. Robinson initiated the relationship. Mr. Robinson discovered the affair and fired the hapless young man, prompting his downward spiral.

Back in Haworth, Branwell had to face the shocked disapproval of his family. Charlotte was especially disappointed. Branwell’s use of alcohol and opiates increased, but he continued to write. He rejoiced when Mr. Robinson died, as he imagined finally achieving wealth and status by marrying the widowed Lydia. She rejected him.

Domestic Disturbance

Bleak cartoon by Branwell – Death challenges him to a fight

After this last disaster, Branwell gave in completely to alcohol, opium, and depression. He flew into rages, threatened to kill himself or his father, and begged friends for money for alcohol. One evening he set fire to his bed, and from that point forward his father made him share his bed for the family’s safety.

The effect on the Brontë family of Branwell’s dramatic decline was profound, especially considering his early potential. Anne may have been the first to suffer directly from Branwell’s actions. She was respected in her position as the Robinson’s governess, yet she resigned a month before Branwell was fired. It is speculated that she left when she learned of his affair.

If the depiction of the situation at the Haworth parsonage portrayed in Masterpiece Theater’s To Walk Invisible is accurate, life with Branwell was a complete misery. Branwell’s violent rages, public drunkenness and steady deterioration were horrifying and embarrassing. Charlotte ceased speaking to him after learning of the affair, and wrote to a friend that she could not allow her to visit if “he” was at home. Emily was more accepting of Branwell, and stayed up to help him to bed after his nights of drinking. One biographer argues that Emily was destroyed by watching her beloved brother’s descent into madness. After his death, Emily hardly ate, and she only survived him by a few months.

Anne at 13 drawn by Charlotte

While Branwell was wallowing in self-pity and addiction, his sisters were writing their famous novels, which were submitted with pen names. Jane Eyre (by Charlotte writing as Currer Bell), Wuthering Heights (by Emily writing as Ellis Bell), and Agnes Grey (by Anne writing as Acton Bell) were all published in 1847. All three were quickly successful, especially Jane Eyre. Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in 1848.

When Branwell died at age 31 in September 1848, the official cause was “chronic bronchitis-marasmus” (malnutrition). It is now thought that he actually died from acute tuberculosis aggravated by alcoholism, drug use and alcohol withdrawal (delirium tremens).

After Branwell’s death, it was clear that both Emily and Anne were also ill. Emily never left the parsonage again after his funeral and died of tuberculosis three months later at age 30. Despite Charlotte’s care, Anne died in May of 1849 at only 29. Charlotte enjoyed much fame after publishing two more novels, Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853. In 1854 she married Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls. Charlotte found unexpected happiness with Nicholls, but died less than a year later in the early stages of pregnancy.

Branwell’s Influence

In addition to the sorrow and disruption Branwell’s deterioration caused in the Brontës’ daily lives, he also figured prominently in their works. Here are just a few examples:

Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond in 1850

Jane Eyre

  • Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s mad wife, was directly influenced by Branwell. A topic of debate in the 1840s was how best to care for the mentally ill. Was it better for families to send their drug addicted, deranged or mentally incompetent children to asylums or keep them at home? The Brontë family faced this issue with Branwell, just as Mr. Rochester did with Bertha. Mr. R’s torn feelings about Bertha – his rage toward her mixed with his determination to care for her – reflect the Brontës’ conflicted feelings about Branwell.
  • Bertha’s intemperate conduct was Mr. R’s first hint that his new bride was deranged, and Branwell provided the model for that behavior.
  • Bertha’s attempt to torch Mr. R in his bed was inspired by Branwell setting his own bed on fire.
  • When scenes involving Bertha were criticized as “too horrid,” Charlotte replied that such behavior was “but too natural.” She knew this from her personal experience with Branwell.
  • The character of Jane’s loathsome cousin John Reed could also have been influenced by Branwell, as he and the adult John shared several traits – drunkenness, indebtedness, and violent rages.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

  • Helen Huntingdon, the heroine of Anne’s novel, escapes with her young son from her abusive, drunken, and philandering husband, Arthur. When Helen learns that Arthur’s degenerate lifestyle has made him ill, she returns to care for him until he dies. The red-headed Arthur is an unflattering portrait of Branwell, and Helen’s actions echo the Brontës’ horror at Branwell’s behavior combined with their concern for him.

    Emily by Branwell – the only remaining fragment of a family portrait

Wuthering Heights

  • Alcoholism and lunacy are both elements of Emily’s novel. Paul Marchbanks states in A Costly Morality, “Cathy I demonstrates the ability to induce delirium, sickness, and prolonged mental illness in herself at will. The anti-hero Heathcliff, like the depressed and self-destructive Branwell, oscillates between desiring and spurning such madness, craving the restlessness of lunacy when generated by his dead lover’s haunting spirit and later spurning such mental disorder when triggered by the irritating presence of young Cathy II.”
  • An early biographer of Emily, Mary Robinson, acknowledges Branwell’s influence on the creation of Heathcliff: “How can I let people think that the many basenesses of her hero’s character are the gratuitous inventions of an inexperienced girl? How can I explain the very existence of Wuthering Heights? . . . Only by explaining Branwell.”
  • Cathy’s brother Hindley Earnshaw, like Branwell, descends into alcoholism, finally drinking himself to death.

Conclusion

The Brontë sisters’ lives were short, yet their accomplishments were great. In contrast, Branwell’s short life was marked by failure and ruin. Despite his influence on his sisters’ works, Branwell was probably unaware of their successful novels. As Charlotte explained, “We could not tell him of our efforts for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent, and talents misapplied.”

Plaque commemorating siblings’ birthplace in Thornton, Great Britain

Read the rest of this entry

Tolkien Reads Day

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Every year on the Twenty-fifth of March the Tolkien Society holds a Tolkien Read Day. This is the day that marks the climactic moment in Professor Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. If you know enough to argue the vagaries of converting the Gondorion calendar or the Shire Reckoning into modern Gregorian calendars then you know enough about this already. The focus for this year for the Tolkien Society is “Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction”. Although, this is a very interesting topic for many students and fans of Tolkien’s work, I think it lacks appeal to the general reader. You can get too focused on the minutia of the true devotee’s passion and miss a chance to spread something you love to other readers, young and old alike.

My own journey through Middle Earth started when I was five and my dad started reading me The Hobbit. He really had no idea what he was starting. I’ve spread my love of these books to friends and family over the years. They’ve given me an appreciation for Tolkien’s work as well as many of the things that inspired him. Now it’s my turn to share with all of you the great experience of the depths of Tolkiana but I’m going to break it down for each type of reader.

For Kids:

For those of you who loved the books since the start of the fourth age and now want to pass along your passion to the hobbit girls and elflings in your life as well as those of you who have just refused to grow up, there are some great options. The best is a small beautifully illustrated book of Bilbo’s Last Song. It is a separate work and fairly spoiler free. You may also be interested in the books based on stories that Tolkien wrote for his children. Roverandom and Mr. Bliss are delightful stories that a creative father used to amuse and comfort his children and Tolkien’s collected Letters from Father Christmas are a great seasonal treat. If your children are interested in more of the author himself, there is the Tolkien volume of the classic Who Was… series.  In my opinion, however, nothing can beat just sitting down and reading The Hobbit. It’s a great read for later elementary or middle school readers and also a great story for parents to read to (or with) their kids. Not much of a reading family? Take the unabridged audio on your next car trip. It’s fun, exciting and completely lacking in content that will make you grab at the volume knob.

So you liked the movies:

The movies, while they have their detractors, were good. You’re the person who went to see them because of the hype, but never read the books. The best suggestion for you is to read the books. Yeah, you think you know what happens, and you do have a good amount of general plot, but there is so much more you missed. There are iconic scenes, wonderful characters, and exposition you’ve never even heard of (unless it’s from hearing one of the true believers complaining). Many people, who’ve read the books, read them again and enjoy them just the same as the first time so please give them a try. If however you’re one of those headstrong trailblazers who won’t walk the same path twice there are hundreds of imitators. Many fall utterly short, but there are a few standouts. For younger readers there are the works of Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander. Older readers may appreciate Terry Brooks Shannara series, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar Saga novels, Juliet Marillier’s Seven Waters trilogy, or Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive series.

“I’ve read The Lord of the Rings”:

Tolkien fans are quick to discriminate between what they consider themselves to be and fans of The Lord of the Rings. Liking The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King is not fan boy or fan girl territory, not anymore. Neither is enjoying more of Tolkien’s writing. In the last several years the Tolkien Estate has released many of the Professor’s previously unavailable or unpublished works. It began with The Silmarillion in 1977. This is the history of Bilbo, Gandalf and Aragorn’s world. It’s almost like a Middle Earth Iliad/Bible, and it reads like it. The stories are great, but the language and phraseology can put some readers off. If you like it, Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth will please you as well.  The same can be said for The Children of Hurin and the forthcoming Beren and Luthien, although I have found The Children of Hurin to be easier to read than some of the others. Conversely, you could look at the professor’s more scholarly works like his attempts at interpreting King Arthur and the Nibelung with The Fall of Arthur and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.  There are a few other titles like these that are more obscure, but this should keep you happy for a while.

The Tolkien Fanatic:

This isn’t for the people who memorized the Cirth runes or have a grammatically correct tattoo in Tengwar. It’s for the people who were in the last category and want to make the jump into true fandom. There are two camps here, the purists and the omnivores. For the purists we start with Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle Earth. For visually oriented fans this is a must. It has maps, paths, climatology and floor plans. It’s mostly conjecture, but well researched conjecture.  Then we have the art books like Realms of Tolkien and Tolkien’s World which feature great artists’ rendition of scenes from Tolkien’s work, or better still The Art of the Lord of the Rings, which features Tolkien’s own drawings and water colors.

For the less discerning, or the more voracious, there are countless encyclopedias and guides, like J.E.A. Tyler’s Tolkien Companion, or books that interpret Tolkien and his works through any number of disciplines like politics with The Hobbit Party.

The must read for everybody here is The History of Middle Earth series. This is a twelve volume set of notes, back story, commentary and alternative takes on the stories you’ve come to love so far. These are not for the faint of heart; they are interesting, but the narrative repeats and is broken up.

The Tolkien Scholar:

This is the post doc of the Tolkien realm. These books are for people who hit fandom and come out the other side truly intellectually curious. You want to know where these books came from, who was the author and where are the roots of Middle Earth. The Story of Kulervo is the most recent item on the list and a work of Tolkien himself, but it is a fragment of a greater work, The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Much of Tolkien’s early inspiration came from here. Tolkien also did his own translation of Beowulf and wrote a commentary, The Monster and his Critics. Both are interesting and enlightening but the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf is interesting as well. The Prose and Poetic Eddas are fascinating and full of names you will recognize, from Thorin to Gandalf. For more on Tolkien the man you can see any of the wonderful biographies, but I especially recommend Tolkien and the Great War. The Inklings can give you a wonderful look into the friendship and collaboration of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others.

Tolkien wrote, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The same is true for delving into Tolkien’s writing. You may just nip round the corner or you may start a journey that lasts a lifetime.

Southern Women Writers Serve up Some Fantastic Fare!

By Cindy Schuchardt, Reference Department

Mmm, Mmm…

March is National Women’s History Month, an excellent time to recognize the talents and achievements of the South’s female writers. Through the years, Southern women writers have cooked up some amazing literary works, often focusing attention on relationships and families and advocating for gender, racial and socioeconomic equity.  And of course, southern food is key in Southern life and culture and is often used as an important tool for these writers. Won’t you join me for this literary feast?

Appetizer:

Delta Wedding, by Eudora Welty

In Delta Wedding, Eudora Welty examines the complex relationships of the many individuals in the Fairchild family.  The story is set in rural Mississippi during the 1920s, at the family’s plantation, Shellmound.  The novel focuses on a wedding between the family’s 17-year-old daughter, Dabney Fairchild, and Troy, the caretaker for the plantation. From the rehearsal dinner, to the wedding feast, to the post-wedding picnic, Welty gives us Southern cuisine aplenty.  As the Southern women in the story cook together and talk together, we learn much about them, their values, and their commitment to family.

Entrée:

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, by Fannie Flagg

From the first three words on the cover of Fannie Flagg’s book, our mouths are watering.  All through the book, food is important.  The novel tells the story of a friendship between the elderly Mrs. Ninny Threadgoode and the middle-aged and discouraged Evelyn Couch.  When Evelyn’s husband visits his mother at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home, Evelyn instead visits with Mrs. Threadgoode in the lobby.  She returns time after time.

As the two women talk, Mrs. Threadgoode reveals the story of Idgie and Ruth, two women who opened a café together in Whistle Stop, Alabama, back in the 1930s.  In a setting fraught with poverty and racial tension, Idgie makes the café food available to everyone – although she is unfairly required to feed her black friends outside the back door.

The Whistle Stop food was home-cooked, nourishing and comforting, based on recipes from Sipsey, a black woman who had been working in the Threadgoode house since she was a girl.

“Even at eleven they say she could make the most delicious biscuits and gravy, cobbler fried chicken, turnip greens and black-eyed peas,” recalls Mrs. Threadgoode to Evelyn.  “And her dumplings were so light they would float in the air and you’d have to catch ’em to eat ’em.”

A sharp contrast is provided by the pre-packaged snack foods and vending machine fare that Evelyn eats and shares with Mrs. Threadgoode.  We see that Evelyn has an unhealthy relationship with food, gnawing through dozens of candy bars in one sitting and then obsessing about being overweight.

Later in the novel, Flagg depicts a heightened understanding in Evelyn, who prepares a lovely dinner for her friend:

“When Mrs. Threadgoode saw what she had on her plate, she clapped her hands, as excited as a child on Christmas. There before her was a plate of perfectly fried green tomatoes and fresh cream-white corn, six slices of bacon, with a bowl of baby lima beans on the side and four huge light and fluffy buttermilk biscuits.”

Dessert:

Hallelujah!  The Welcome Table, by Maya Angelou

I saved a book by one of my favorite writers, Maya Angelou, for our final course. While best known for her autobiographical memoirs, poems and essays, Angelou has also crafted cookbooks among her “lighter fare.” The subtitle to Hallelujah! The Welcome Table invites the reader to enjoy “A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes.”  The Random House book jacket proclaims that the book is “a stunning combination of the two things Angelou loves best: writing and cooking.”

Each section of the book is introduced with personal reflection. In one of these, Angelou recalls the desserts that were shared to cap off local quilting bees:

“Mrs. Sneed, the pastor’s wife, would bring sweet potato pie, warm and a little too sweet for Momma’s taste but perfect to Bailey and me.  Mrs. Miller’s coconut cake and Mrs. Kendrick’s chocolate fudge were what Adam and Eve ate in the Garden just before the Fall.  But the most divine dessert of all was Momma’s Caramel Cake.”

Angelou goes on to share a poignant memory of how her mother baked a caramel cake to lift her spirits after an incident earlier that day.  A teacher had slapped the then-mute Maya and demanded that she talk. Read the rest of this entry

“And the award goes to . . .”

By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department

No, not Meryl Streep.  Not these awards, anyway.  If you’re reading this blog, presumably you have an interest in and/or some knowledge about children’s literature, or you’ve heard about the hysterically witty and charming woman who writes a quasi-regular blog for the Williamson County Public Library website.  Either way, I’m glad you’re here.

Much like the entertainment industry, there are literally (HA! See what I did there?) a plethora of honors that are awarded each year in the field of Kid Lit.  I’m not going to make this article an exhaustive list of the aforementioned youth book awards, so I have narrowed it down to three:  the Randolph Caldecott Medal; the John Newbery Medal; and the Volunteer State Book Award.

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The first of these is the Randolph Caldecott Medal, which has been awarded annually since 1938 to the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children.”   It is awarded to the illustrator by the American Library Association and is named for Randolph Caldecott, a 19th-century British illustrator.  The two sides of the actual medal are derived from Caldecott’s illustrations:  one side depicts a section of the front cover of The Diverting History of John Gilpin; the reverse is based on Caldecott’s illustration for “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” from the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.”  Additionally, the committee acknowledges several worthy runners-up each year, and those recipients are referred to as Caldecott Honor Books.  A random sampling of some past Caldecott winners includes some of my personal favorite children’s

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books:  Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1964);  The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (1986); Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes (2005);  and This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (2013.)  The entire list of Caldecott winners since its inception can be found at the American Library Association website, www.ala.org/alsc/caldecott, and all Caldecott books can be found in their own section in the Children’s department at WCPL.  Oh, and here’s an awesome bit of news, hot off the presses (see what I did there?):  the 2017 Caldecott Medal winner was just announced over the weekend at the ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta, and the award goes to . . .  Radiant Child:  The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe.

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The John Newbery Medal is another kid-lit award which is also bestowed annually by the American Library Association, and the Newbery Medal recognizes the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”  Named for John Newbery, an 18th-century British publisher of juvenile books, the Newbery Medal was proposed by noted American publisher and editor Frederic G. Melcher in 1921, hence making it the first children’s book award in the world.  The medal was designed by American sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan and depicts a man, presumably an author, giving his book to a boy and girl.

media-awards-4For a book to be considered for the Newbery, it must be written by an American citizen or resident and must be published first or simultaneously in the United States, in English, during the preceding year.  Much like the Caldecott Medal, the selection committee awards a variable number of citations to runners-up, and those are referred to as Newbery Honor Books.  Most Newbery winners appear on recommended reading lists for elementary and secondary schools, and they also have their own section at WCPL.  The list of Newbery Medal recipients since 1922 can be found at www.ala.org/alsc/newbery, and the Newbery Honors winners are listed there as well.  The 2017 Newbery Medal winner, also just announced at the ALA conference over the weekend, is The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill.

media-awards-5Last but not least in this list of literary luminaries (mercy, say that three times fast) is an award with some local flavor, and that is the Volunteer State Book Award.  The VSBA, as we librarian types refer to it, is sponsored annually by the Tennessee Library Association and the Tennessee Association of School Librarians.  Every year, schoolchildren from across Tennessee are asked to read books from a list of nominations.  The VSBA has four divisions:  Primary (Kindergarten-2nd Grade), Intermediate (grades 3-5), Middle School (grades 6-8) and High School (grades 9-12.)  In the spring, students who have read or listened to at least three titles from the slate of nominees are allowed to cast their vote for their favorites.  Those votes are then tabulated and sent to the Tennessee Library Association, and the book with the most votes statewide wins the award.  Here at home in Williamson County, many teachers and school librarians from WCS (Williamson County Schools), FSSD (Franklin Special School District), and many private and parochial schools use the VSBA list as their recommended reading over the summer.  The lists of current and past nominees can be found at www.tasltn.org/vsba .

So there you have it, friends—truckloads of fun book suggestions for the kiddos, and for yourself.  Happy reading!


As always, the opinions about life, love, and literature expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and in no way a reflection on the employees of Williamson County Public Library or their families, friends, neighbors, or pets.
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