August 19, 1902: Parsley Is Gharsley

Ogden Nash, an American poet known for his droll and playful verse, wrote over 500 pieces of comic verse, the best of which was published in 14 volumes between 1931 and his death in 1971. He frequently used surprising puns, made up words, and words deliberately misspelled for comic effect.

His most famous rhyme was a twist on Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” (1913): “I think that I shall never see / a billboard lovely as a tree.  Indeed, unless the billboards fall / I’ll never see a tree at all.”

When Nash wasn’t writing poems, he made guest appearances on comedy and radio shows and lectured at colleges and universities.

I am a conscientious man, when I throw rocks at seabirds I leave no tern
unstoned.

 

A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than the pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.

 

Progress might have been alright once, but it has gone on too long.

 

The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he’s not a feast.
Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I’ll stare at something less prepoceros.

 

The Pig, if I am not mistaken,
Gives us ham and pork and Bacon.
Let others think his heart is big,
I think it stupid of the Pig.

 

There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.

 

Oh, what a tangled web do parents weave when they think that their children are naive.

August 4, 1855: Familiarity Breeds Contempt (Page 76a)

People in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used to pester John Bartlett, who ran the University Book Store, asking for quotations on various subjects. Finally, to make his life easier, he assembled a collection of the more popular quotations. So beginning August 4, 1855, when people asked for a quotepithy quote, he could reply, “Look it up in your Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and stop bugging me.”  His book contained 258 pages of quotations by 169 authors, primarily from the Bible, Shakespeare, and the important English poets. This was a bit of an undertaking, Bartlett pointed out. How does one decide if a quotation is familiar? A quote may be on a first-name basis with one person while completely unknown to another.

Nevertheless, the book was a big success, and Bartlett authored three more editions before becoming a partner in the publishing firm of Little, Brown, and Company. In all, he supervised nine editions of the work before his death in 1905.

Various other editors stepped in for a series of editions, and in 1955, the 13th Edition was celebrated as the Centennial Edition.  Along about the 15th Edition, the work started annoying critics. One critic said it would be the downfall of the series: “Donning the intellectual bell-bottoms and platform shoes of its era, Bartlett’s began sprouting third-rate Third World, youth-culture, and feminist quotes,” part of “a middle-aged obsession with staying trendy.”  The 16th Edition offended some folks because it included only three minor Ronald Reagan quotations (FDR had 35 quotes, and JFK 28). The editor answered the criticism by saying he didn’t like Reagan.

In the 17th Edition (2003) he took heat for including the likes of J.K. Rowling, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry David while cutting classic quotes.  He did include six Reagan quotes but admitted “I was carried away by prejudice. Mischievously I did him dirty.”

“Me want cookie!” — Cookie Monster as quoted in Bartlett’s

June 23, 1626: Another Fish Story

A codfish was brought to market in Cambridge, England, on this day in 1626. Codfish were probably brought to market every day in 1626 – and in 1627 and throughout the centuries, but this was a rather unusual fish. Upon being opened, it was found to have a book in its stomach.  There are plenty of  fish in books, but how many books in fish are there?

The book had seen better days, but it remained readable. It had been written by one John Frith and included several essays on religious subjects evidently written by Frith when in prison. Oddly enough, he had been confined in a fish cellar where many of his fellow prisoners died from smelling too much salt cod. Frith got past the salt cod but was eventually taken to the Tower, and in 1533 was burned at the stake for unacceptable religious beliefs.  How he got his essays – which were no doubt inflammatory – into that cod is still a mystery.

The folks at Cambridge reprinted the work, which had been totally forgotten for a hundred years until it turned up inside the fish.  The reprint was called Vox Piscis, which would translate to “voice of the fish.”  There’s definitely a morale booster for writers here:  When Random House says no, go find yourself a big fish.

I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully. ― George W. Bush

June 20, 1890: Painting Outside the Lines

Oscar Wilde’s only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, appeared as the lead story in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in the July 1890 issue, released on June 20.

In the novel, the title character is the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty and becomes infatuated with him. Dorian is also infatuated by Dorian’s beauty, especially the beauty in the painting, and more than annoyed that the man in the painting will remain the same, while Dorian himself will get old and wrinkled and forget people’s names and so forth. Obviously the only answer is to put his soul on the market, which he does, with the purchaser (you know who) promising that the painting will age while Dorian himself stays the same.

In an apparent effort to make the painting age as quickly as possible, Dorian embarks on a life of debauchery, and each sin takes its toll on the portrait.

The book had about the same effect on British critics as Dorian’s naughtiness had on the painting. “Vulgar”, “unclean”, “poisonous” and “discreditable” were a few of their nicer comments. “A tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Decadents – a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction,” said the Daily Chronicle.   And this was after Wilde’s editor had already deleted a lot of “objectionable” text before it made its first appearance in Lippincott’s, eliminating titillating bits of debauchery and elements of homosexuality.

Deciding that the novel contained things that might upset an innocent woman, the editor cut further, removing many more decadent passages before the book was published in 1891.

May 27, 1915: Don’t Stop the Carnival

Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk was born in 1915. His books include The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, Marjorie Morningstar, and his most recent, which he says will be his last, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, released in 2016.    Don’t Stop the Carnival, a must-read for anyone interested in the Caribbean, was written in 1965. In the following excerpt, Norman and Henny Paperman have embarked on a new Caribbean enterprise and, at a party, they tell their friends about it:

During this evening, nearly every person there told Norman or Henny, usually in a private moment, that they were doing a marvelous, enviable thing. The Russians at the time were firing off new awesome bombs in Siberia, and the mood in New York was jittery, but there was more than that behind the wistfulness of their friends. All these people were at an age when their lives were defined, their hopes circumscribed. Nothing was in prospect but plodding the old tracks until heart disease, cancer, or one of the less predictable trap-doors opened under their feet. To them, the Papermans had broken out of Death Row into green April fields, and in one way or another they all said so.

Wouk turns 102 today.

Having brought up the Caribbean, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Calypso: Stories of the Caribbean, Terry and the Pirate and Voodoo Love Song, not in the same league as Don’t Stop the Carnival but just as as readily available.

May 15, 1482: Toscanelli’s Comet

Paolo Toscanelli, born in 1397, was your typical Italian Renaissance Man, dabbling in everything from astronomy to mathematics to philosophy to cartography. He rubbed elbows (and influenced) the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus. In fact, that fickle finger of fate could have just as easily pointed at Paolo instead of Columbus.

As we all know, Christopher Columbus as a boy used to sit on the docks in Genoa watching ships slowly disappear over the horizon. While all the other boys sitting on the docks attributed this phenomenon to the ships falling off the edge of the world, Christopher determined that ships were gradually disappearing because the world was actually round. A fairy tale, of course. Columbus knew the world was round because Paolo Toscanelli told him it was round. Toscanelli even gave Columbus a map (a flat map admittedly) that showed Asia to the left on the other side of the Atlantic. Neither of them had reckoned on that other continent lying in-between. Yet Columbus got an October holiday and a city in Ohio while Toscanelli got squat.

Another near miss for Paolo was his observation of a comet in 1456. Although Paolo was the first to identify it, it remained known only as the Comet of 1456 until 300 years later when English astronomer Edmond Halley predicted its 1759 return and got naming rights.

Paolo died on May 15, 1482, ten years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue and some 350 years before “Halley’s” Comet did an encore.

May 15, 1856: Over the Rainbow

She threw her arms around the Lion’s neck and kissed him, patting his big head tenderly. Then she kissed the Tin Woodman, who was weeping in a way most dangerous to his joints. But she hugged the soft, stuffed body of the Scarecrow in her arms instead of kissing his painted face, and found she was crying herself at this sorrowful parting from her loving comrades.

Glinda the Good stepped down from her ruby throne to give the little girl a good-bye kiss, and Dorothy thanked her for all the kindness she had shown to her friends and herself.

Dorothy now took Toto up solemnly in her arms, and having said one last good-bye she clapped the heels of her shoes together three times saying, “Take me home to Aunt Em!

Lyman Frank Baum, born in Chittenango, New York, in 1856 (died 1919), was best known for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although he wrote a total of 55 novels, 83 short stories, over 200 poems, and made many attempts to bring his works to the stage and screen.

In 1897, after several abortive early careers, Baum wrote and published Mother Goose in Prose, a collection of Mother Goose rhymes written as prose stories, and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. The book was a moderate success, allowing Baum to quit his door-to-door sales job and devote time to his writing. In 1899, Baum partnered with illustrator W. W. Denslow, to publish Father Goose, His Book, a collection of nonsense poetry. The book was a success, becoming the best-selling children’s book of the year. Then in 1900, the duo published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to critical acclaim and financial success.   The book was the best-selling children’s book for two years after its initial publication.

Oz was a popular destination long before the famous 1939 screen version of the book.  A  musical  based closely upon the book,  the first to use the shortened title “The Wizard of Oz”, opened in Chicago in 1902, then ran on Broadway for 293 performances.   Baum went on to write another 13 Oz novels.

Baum’s intention with the Oz books, and other fairy tales, was to tell American tales in much the same manner as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen , modernizing them and removing the excess violence.  He is often credited with the beginning of the sanitization of children’s stories, although his stories do include eye removals, maimings of all kinds and an occasional decapitation.

Most of the books outside the Oz series were written under pseudonyms. Baum was variously known as Edith Van Dyne, Laura Bancroft, Floyd Akers, Suzanne Metcalf, Schuyler Staunton, John Estes Cooke, and Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald.

Baum wrote two newspaper editorials about Native Americans that have tarnished his legacy because of his assertion that the safety of white settlers depended on the wholesale genocide of American Indians. Some scholars take them at face value, others suggest they were satire. Decide for yourself.

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.

Repartee Anyone?

rep·ar·tee

ˌrepərˈtē,ˌrepˌärˈtē,ˌrepˌärˈtā/

noun

Conversation or speech characterized by quick, witty comments or replies; amusing and usually light sparring with words

For example:

“So here we are,” said Huey. “stuck on Gilligan’s Island – Chickenshit Crusoe and his faithless companion, Good Friday.”

“I was a Boy Scout for two weeks,” Paul offered.

“What a relief. And to think I was starting to get worried. But you obviously know how to start a fire without matches, forage for food, and carve a comfortable existence out of the cruel jungle.”

“Well I did learn how to tie a square knot.”

“Well there you are. You little rascals are always prepared, aren’t you? And kind and reverent and true and God-fearing and above all helpful. If we only had a little old lady, you could help her back and forth across the beach.”

“Are you through?”

“Probably not.” She sat down next to him.

“Since we may be spending the rest of our lives together, we should probably learn to be cordial.”

“Sure, I know your type, Crusoe,” said Huey. “First you get a girl stranded on an island. Then you want to be cordial. And then – ”

And then?

 

Protagonist

A protagonist is the main character in any story, such as a literary work or drama:
Say let us put man and woman together,
Find out which one is smarter (and which is the protagonist)

Paul wasn’t sure, but the five-foot duck waddling through the throngs of laughing, crying, shouting, whining children appeared to be waddling toward him – a duck with a destination and, perhaps, a mission. Chances are it had spotted him scowling in a land where grinning is the norm, and it, by God, meant to do something about it.

“Enjoying the Magic Kingdom?” asked the duck upon reaching him. Despite its carefully sculpted plastic smile, this duck wasn’t going to cheer anyone up; its voice dripped sarcasm.

“Of course, I am,” Paul answered, adopting his very own duck attitude. “Isn’t that why you’re here? By the way, didn’t I somewhere get the idea that you’re all supposed to be pleasant and cheerful?”

“I’m not even supposed to talk. Just wave.” The duck waved and, in silence, could have passed for pleasant and cheerful, albeit of a fabricated sort.

“Then why did you talk to me?” Paul asked.

“Because you look bored – like you positively hate the place.”

“Ah, you’re not just an ordinary duck, you’re a member of the happiness squad, here to lift my spirits.”

“No,” answered the duck. “I thought you might have a cigarette.”

Who’s our protagonist?  Paul?  Huey (the duck)? Or two protagonists for the price of one?  Find out here.

March 6, 1619: The Nose Knows

cyrano-Cyrano de Bergerac, born in 1619, is of course best known in the modern times for his nose. According to legend, it was quite large. Depending on which account you accept, Cyrano was either a French aristocrat, author and military hero with a big nose or the descendant of a Sardinian fishmonger who suffered from syphilis with a big nose. He was an early writer of science fiction, and in his most famous work, The Other World, Cyrano travels to the moon using rockets powered by firecrackers where he meets the inhabitants who have four legs, musical voices, and firearms that shoot game and cook it — the TV rights are still available, if you’re interested.  A  lesser known work, Noses from Mars, is self-explanatory.

Then we come to the story of Cyrano himself and how he courted the fair Roxanne on behalf of his friend Christian.  Although these people are real, the story is alas! pure fiction, which is probably just as well, for Roxanne was Cyrano’s cousin and had they ever consummated their relationship, their children would have been half-wits with big noses.

 

A bonus excerpt about big noses from my story “All Day, All Night, Marianne”:

“Maybe I have an idea for you, Roberto,” said Toussaint, lowering his voice even though there was no one within thirty yards of the pier. “You know the fine gentleman from that city I can’t remember that’s very close to London, the one who takes my water taxi wherever he goes and pays me very generously? Him and me, we’re friends now. He talks to me about all sorts of things. He’s very educated in literacy – that’s reading important books by dead people and looking at pictures and listening to music, all by dead people. It seems people who write books and paint pictures and make music become important when they die.”

“What good is being important if you’re dead? Doesn’t sound all that educated to me.”

“How would you know educated, man?” said Toussaint, just a little miffed at Roberto’s effrontery in questioning him. “His name is Herbert and he’s got two last names. Now, do you want me to help you, or do you want to spend your life on the beach staring at her with your mouth open and your brain shut until you both get old and die?”

“I want you to help me,” said the chastened Roberto. He stared at his feet as he swirled them in the water.

“Okay,” said Toussaint, once again in command. “Now, Herbert was telling me this very, very famous story by a guy that’s been dead for close onto 400 years. Four hundred – now that makes him mighty important. The guy in the story is like you. His name is Romeo; that even sort of sounds like Roberto. This Romeo, he loves a girl whose name I forget. It doesn’t sound like Marianne, but I guess that doesn’t matter. Julianne, that’s it. I guess it sounds a little like Marianne. Now Julianne’s family don’t like Romeo one little bit.”

“Why doesn’t her family like him?” asked Roberto whose face now showed only confusion.

“Because Julianne is very beautiful, just like Marianne, but Romeo has this great big nose. So Romeo sneaks to Julianne’s back porch every night and hides in the bushes and says pretty words while her big fat mama sleeps inside. He says things like, ‘Julianne, my sweetest sweet, your face is like the moon.’ And Julianne says, ‘Oh Romeo, I can’t see your face; it’s behind the bushes. Show me your face.’ And Romeo says, ‘No, no, fair princess. I cannot. But it’s a nice face – with a tiny nose.’ And Julianne says, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore are you, Romeo?’ See how they use each other’s names a lot? That’s very romantic.”

“Wherefore?”

“That’s 400-year-old talk. But this is what puts smart dudes like me and Herbert over here and dumb dudes like you over on the beach with your mouth open and bugs flying in and out. When Julianne says wherefore, she isn’t wondering where Romeo is.”

“No?”

“Of course not. She knows he’s in the bushes. What she’s really saying is why. Herbert explained that to me.”

“Why?”

“Because him and me is friends.”

“No, I mean why is wherefore ‘why’? And why would she ask Romeo why he is Romeo?”

“Because it’s literacy,” said Toussaint, trying his best not to patronize poor Roberto. “She wants to know why it has to be Romeo out there instead of someone else.”

“How come?”

“Because he has such a big nose, of course.”

Roberto thought about this story for a moment, kicking at the water with one foot and then the other. Toussaint studied him, looking for some sign that maybe he understood.

“Why doesn’t she just tell him to go away?” asked Roberto finally.

Toussaint grinned. “Because she loves all the pretty words he says to her. And before long, she loves him, too – nose and all. And all because he talked pretty. As Herbert says, the story don’t end until the fat lady sings.”

“What?”

“The fat lady. I guess at the end of all these famous stories a fat lady sings. That’s how you know it’s over. So all you got to do, Roberto, is hide outside Marianne’s porch and say pretty words and hope she falls in love with you before a fat lady sings.”

Read the entire story here.

“All Day, All Night Marianne” is one of 15 short stories in the collection Calypso: Stories of the Caribbean.

 

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February 27, 1902: Travels with Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born and grew up in Salinas, California, a part of the fertile region he would later call the Pastures of Heaven in a collection of short stories and the setting for many of his works. The Nobel-winning novelist was born on February 27, 1902.

steinbeckjohnHis first critical and commercial success was Tortilla Flat set in and around Monterey, California, and featuring a small band of ne’er-do-well paisanos living for wine and good times after World War I. The novel was a sort of rogue’s tale, full of rough and earthy humor. From here Steinbeck moved on to more serious portrayals of the economic problems facing the rural working class in the social novels for which he became known — In Dubious Battle in 1936, Of Mice and Men in 1937, and his most important work The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, the saga of hardscrabble Oklahoma tenant farmers who became America’s migrant workers.

johnsteinbeck_thegrapesofwrathSteinbeck’s California did not take kindly to his portrayal. His books were banned, and in his hometown, twice burned in public protests. In fact, his books were banned in schools and libraries throughout the country and continued to be well into this century. Steinbeck was one of the ten most banned authors from 1990 to 2004 (according to the American Library Association), Of Mice and Men, sixth out of the top 100 banned books.

Later novels include Cannery Row, East of Eden, Travels with Charley,  and The Winter of Our Discontent. Steinbeck died in 1968.

 

groucho6