Friday, December 18, 2015

Whimsical poet and Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc, 83, died of burns and shock

             When I am dead, I hope it may be said:

            “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

So wrote the prolific poet, satirist, novelist, essayist, and Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc, author of more than 150 books, many of which are indeed still read.  The number of his sins, scarlet or otherwise, is not recorded.

Best known for his spiritual travel book, The Path to Rome, and his wry and mordant Cautionary Tales for Children, Belloc was born July 27, 1870, in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France, to a French lawyer father, and an English writer mother. His father was wiped out financially in a stock market crash and died when Hilaire was five, and the boy and his mother moved to England, where he was educated at Cardinal Newman’s Oratory School in Birmingham and at Oxford’s Balliol College, winning the presidency of the Oxford Union and taking a first-class degree in history.

A dual citizen of France and Britain, Belloc served in the French military and was a Liberal member of the British Parliament from 1906 to 1910.  He wrote for and edited various British journals and published a variety of literary output.  When asked why he wrote so much, he told the questioner, “Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar.” Impecunious for much of his life, he did manage to accumulate enough wealth to purchase a five-acre estate in West Sussex, a part of England he dearly loved and about which he wrote copiously.

A theologically rigid Catholic, Belloc and his friend and Catholic ally G. K. Chesterton were noted for their ongoing debates with the humanists George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. Belloc promoted his religious belief even in his humorous verse.  He wrote:
            Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
            There’s always laughter and good red wine.
            At least I’ve always found it so.
            Benedicamus Domino!
A whole series of grimly whimsical verses, mostly about naughty children who meet unfortunate dénouements, are part of Belloc’s enduring legacy.  One of them deals with a boy named Jim, who ran away from his Nurse at the Zoo:
            He hadn't gone a yard when—Bang!
            With open Jaws, a lion sprang,
            And hungrily began to eat
            The Boy: beginning at his feet.
            Now, just imagine how it feels
            When first your toes and then your heels,
            And then by gradual degrees,
            Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
            Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
            No wonder Jim detested it!

            When Nurse informed his Parents, they
            Were more Concerned than I can say:—
            His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
            Said, “Well—it gives me no surprise,
            He would not do as he was told!''
            His Father, who was self-controlled,
            Bade all the children round attend
            To James's miserable end,
            And always keep a-hold of Nurse
            For fear of finding something worse.

Belloc’s own life had more than a fair share of death and tragic circumstance. His wife, Elodie, whom he married in 1896 and with whom he had five children, died in 1914 of influenza. Their son Louis was killed in 1918 serving in the Royal Flying Corps, and another son, Peter, died in 1941, fighting in World War II with the Royal Marines. Belloc himself suffered a stroke in 1942, from which he never recovered, although he lived another eleven years and wrote a few articles during that time.

On July 5, 1953, in the study of Kingsland, his home at Horsham, Sussex, Belloc fell while putting a log on the fire, and a live coal badly burned his feet.  He was taken to the Mount Alvernia Nursing Home in Guildford, Surrey, where he underwent surgery, but died of the burns and septic shock on July 16, eleven days before his eighty-third birthday. His fate was a strange echo of the story of Matilda, a little girl in one of his Cautionary Tales, who mischievously called the fire department to her home as a prank, and when, a few weeks later,
            That Night a Fire did break out--
            You should have heard Matilda Shout!
            You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
            And throw the window up and call
            To People passing in the Street--
            (The rapidly increasing Heat
            Encouraging her to obtain
            Their confidence) -- but all in vain!
            For every time she shouted 'Fire!'
            They only answered 'Little Liar!'
            And therefore when her Aunt returned,
            Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

 Belloc was buried next to his wife at the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in West Grinstead, Sussex, where he had been a parishioner.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Known as “The Man Who Would Not Die,” Art Buchwald, finally did, at 81

Art Buchwald, the political humorist, would probably not make it onto many lists of “great authors.” But he had such compelling comments about his own impending death that he has earned a place in this particular pantheon. Sent to a hospice to spend his last days with terminal kidney disease, Buchwald was known there as “The Man Who Would Not Die.”  

Born October 20, 1925, in New York City, Buchwald never graduated from high school, but still won a Pulitzer Prize—not once, but twice—for his newspaper columns. Raised in several foster homes, he was too young to join the Marine Corps in World War II without parental permission, so he bribed a Skid Row drunk with a pint of whiskey to impersonate his legal guardian. He served in the Pacific for three years and after the war he managed to enroll at the University of Southern California, but was denied a degree when it was discovered he lacked a high school diploma. 


He went to Paris and talked his way onto the staff of the European edition of The New York Herald Tribune as a columnist, writing about Paris night life. The column morphed into a wide-ranging satirical commentary syndicated in The Washington Post and many other newspapers.

In Paris Buchwald met an American publicist named Ann McGarry, and they were married in London’s Westminster Cathedral at a Catholic ceremony arranged by Lena Horne and attended by Gene Kelly, Rosemary Clooney, John Huston, José Ferrer, and Perle Mesta. The Buchwalds divorced after forty years, but reconciled shortly before her death in 1994.

At the age of seventy-four Buchwald suffered a stroke, which left him partly incapacitated.  His condition worsened over the years and in February of 2006, when he was eighty, his leg was amputated owing to poor circulation, and he entered a hospice suffering from kidney failure, anticipating his “last hurrah.”

He had discontinued dialysis treatment and expected to live only a few weeks. “If you have to go, the way you go is a big deal,” he told an interviewer. He added that he was happy with his choice and was eating regularly at McDonald’s. He continued to write his syndicated humor column during that time. 

A few months later, still in the hospice, he wrote: “I am writing this article from a hospice. But being in the hospice didn't work out exactly the way I wanted it to. By all rights I should have finished my time here five or six weeks ago—at least that's all Medicare would pay for."           

He told a radio interviewer that his kidney was working again and that he blessed it every morning. “Some people bless their hearts,” he said. “I bless my kidney.”           

In July he left the hospice for his home on Martha’s Vineyard. “I am known in the hospice as the Man Who Wouldn’t Die….I think some people are starting to wonder why I’m still around,” he said. 

He was able to complete another book, called Too Soon to Say Goodbye. Of his future he wrote: “I don't know what's coming next and neither does anyone else. It's something that we do have to face but the thing is that a lot of people don't want to face it. And there's denial. If somebody says it, like me, everybody feels a little better that they can discuss it.”

Buchwald hung around until January 17, 2007, when he died at the age of eighty-one—of kidney failure—at his son’s home in Washington, D.C.  He left a videotape that was posted on the website of The New York Times, in which he declared: “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”

Buchwald was buried on Martha’s Vineyard in West Chop Cemetery, in a service with a United States Marine Corps color guard and personal tributes from a small gathering of family and friends, who included Mike Wallace, Robert Brustein, and Walter Cronkite. There was a reading of his favorite poem, “In Flanders Field,” an a cappella song by Carly Simon, an informal choral rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and a recitation by Buchwald’s physician, Dr. Michael Newman, of the Kaddish, the traditional Hebrew prayer of mourning.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, 68, dead; assassination suspected—but by whom?

Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, better known as Maxim Gorky, had a fabulously successful career as a wealthy and famous writer, with friends in high places, but he very likely died on orders given by one of those friends.  The friend’s name was Josef Stalin. 

Now known mainly for his play The Lower Depths, an early example of social realism in drama, and his autobiography My Childhood, Gorky was honored by having his picture on cigarette boxes, postcards, and a Russian postage stamp, and his name affixed to numerous city streets, Russia’s main literary institute, the world’s largest airplane (at the time), and his own hometown itself.  But his leftist political activism got him trouble not only with Tsarist authorities, but also with Vladimir Lenin, Vyacheslav Molotov, and his on-again, off-again pal Stalin.

Born March 28, 1868, in Nizhni Novgorod (which changed its name to Gorky in 1932), Gorky himself best chronicled his early life in a résumé sent to an editor who requested some biographical information:
1878--Shoemaker's boy.
1879--Apprentice to a designer, painting ikons.
1880--Cabin boy on a Volga steamer (where the ship's cook taught him to read). 
1883--Worked in a biscuit factory.
1885--Baker's boy.
1886--Dummy in a village theatre.
1887--Fruit seller.
1888--Attempted suicide.
1889--Railway employee.
1890--Clerk to an advocate (learned to write).
1891--Operative in a salt mill; later vagabond.
1892--Wrote his first novel, "Makar Chudra."
1903--Celebrity and riches.

He used the pen name of “Maxim Gorky,” which means Maxim the Bitter.  As in his writing, which typically conveys the plight of downtrodden workers, his new name reflected his anger at the Tsarist regime and his proletariat revolutionary tendencies. His seditious utterances forced him into exile in Italy, but he returned to Russia in 1913 when the Tsar granted amnesty.  He allied himself with the Bolsheviks but fell out with Lenin and again went into exile in 1921.  All the while his fame as a writer increased.  He finally returned to Russia in 1928, at the personal invitation of Communist Party leader Josef Stalin, who, after organizing extravagant celebrations of Gorky’s reunion with his native land, then placed him under virtual house arrest.

Gorky was married (sort of) three times. He left his first wife, Ekaterina Pavlovna Peshkova, after a short while, but owing to intricacies in Russia law, neglected to divorce her.  He took up with an actress name Maria Fydorovna Andreyeva, but living openly with her in that era caused such a scandal that the two of them were barred from New York hotels, William Dean Howells canceled a dinner party in Gorky’s honor, and Mark Twain withdrew his support from one of his humanitarian causes.  From 1920 until 1933 he and his secretary, Moura Budberg, lived as common-law husband and wife.  Budberg was later the mistress of H. G. Wells and a double agent for the Russian secret police and British intelligence.

One of those who might be called “spiritual but not religious,” Gorky rejected organized religion, but despite his Marxism in social matters, he was not an atheist or materialist. When asked to express his views on religion by the French journal Mercure de France, Gorky said that he opposed the religions of Moses, Christ, and Mohammed, but he acknowledged the value of religious sentiments, which he described as an awareness of a harmonious link that joins man to the universe.

Frail from repeated bouts of tuberculosis, which had plagued him since the age of twenty-one, Gorky was living in a dacha outside Moscow in 1936, grieving the sudden and unexpected death of his son two years earlier. Attacks against his reputation began to appear in the principal Soviet newspaper, Pravda, but Gorky was spared seeing them since a special edition, of which only one copy was printed, was prepared for delivery to him. Under treatment for his pulmonary problems, he was visited by Stalin early in June. On June 18, 1936, Gorky died, quite unexpectedly, at the age of sixty-eight. 

In 1938 the chief of Russian secret police, Genrikh Yagoda; Gorky’s secretary, Petr Petrovich Kryuchkov; Gorky’s doctor, Lev Levin (who also was Stalin’s personal physician), and two other doctors were convicted of conspiring to murder both Gorky and his son. In Gorky’s case they were accused of repeatedly administering excessive doses of pulmonary medicines, including camphor, digalen, caffeine, and cardiosol. It was alleged  that Gorky’s assassination had been carried out on orders from Stalin’s arch-enemy, Leon Trotsky. Yagoda and Kryuchkov were executed.  Later evidence suggests that Stalin himself ordered the assassinations.

Gorky was given an elaborate state funeral, at which the principal honored pallbearers were Stalin and Molotov.  His ashes were buried in the Kremlin wall.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Poet-Diplomat Pablo Neruda, 69, Dead: Cancer or Murder by Poisonous Injection?

Chilean poet, politician, and diplomat, Pablo Neruda (real name: Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto), Nobel Prize-winner for his poetry, both surrealistic and passionately romantic, died under highly mysterious circumstances that are still under investigation more than forty years later. 

Born July 12, 1904, in Parral, Chile, he was the son of a railway worker and a school teacher. His mother died a month after he was born, and he was raised by a stepmother. He showed poetic talent by the age of ten and by sixteen had published a number of verses under the pen name Pablo Neruda, chosen to honor the Czech poet Jan Neruda and to keep his poetry secret from his father, who strongly disapproved of such fripperies.

He struggled to earn a living with his writing and in 1927, financially desperate, he accepted the post of honorary consul of Chile in Rangoon, capital of the British colony of Burma, a city whose name he had never before heard. It was the beginning of a long diplomatic career in which he served as consul, consul general, and ambassador in several far-flung posts. He became involved in politics and was elected as a Communist senator. When the Communist Party was outlawed in Chile in 1948, a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he hid for months in a basement in Valparaiso, then fled to Argentina. During this period, he also traveled to Paris, using the passport of his friend, the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, whom Neruda vaguely resembled. Years later Neruda became a close adviser to the Socialist president Salvador Allende, who appointed him ambassador to France.

Throughout his diplomatic and political career, he continued to write and publish, establishing a reputation as one of the world’s leading poets.  Some of his notable works are Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, The Book of Questions, 100 Love Sonnets, Odes to Common Things, On the Blue Shore of Silence, Intimacies, Canto General, and Residence on Earth. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez has called him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language,” and critic Harold Bloom places him among the twenty-six essential writers in the Western literary canon. Honored with the International Peace Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize, and the Stalin Peace Prize, Neruda received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

Neruda married three times. The first was to a Dutch banker, whom he met in 1930 on one of his diplomatic assignments in Java. They had a daughter and were divorced in 1936. After that he married Delia del Carril, a woman twenty years older, and they were divorced in 1955. (She lived until 1989 when she died at age one hundred and four.)  In 1955 Neruda married Matilde Urrutia,  who remained his wife until his death.

Although from a Roman Catholic background, Neruda shied away from expressing religious conviction. In a 1971 interview with Eric Bockstael for Radio-Canada, Neruda said: “I have no theory about man. I have theories on the shoes I am going to buy when mine are worn out or that my clothes are already getting threadbare. I don’t know what man is. And I am a living man, and life is not for thinking about what substantially is ‘Man’ in that sense. Perhaps it is a thing that interests me less than the profession of a mechanic or of a geologist; that’s more important. But this interminable debate on what is man is so much talk that it doesn’t interest me. We know that we are born, and that we are going to die, etc. But between all that it’s very difficult, or it’s very easy to say things. And I have nothing to do with that; I don’t know what it’s all about. … I leave the philosophers free to continue to ask themselves what is it that man is. But don’t ask me, because I am completely ignorant on that question.”

And in a poem about the death of his dog, Neruda seems to make it clear that he has no belief in an afterlife for human beings:                           
                         …and I, the materialist, who never believed                             in any promised heaven in the sky
                         for any human being,
                         I believe in a heaven I'll never enter.

On September 11, 1973, Neruda’s political ally, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and killed in the presidential palace. At the time Neruda was hospitalized in the Santa María Clinic near his home for treatment for prostate cancer. On September 23 Neruda received an injection, presumably from a doctor. He called his wife, Matilde, to take him home because he was feeling bad and suspected the injection may have caused his discomfort. He returned to his home on the Isla Negra and died there six and a half hours after the injection.  He was sixty-nine.

The official cause of death was attributed to advanced metastatic prostate cancer resulting in “malnutrition and wasting away”—although Neruda weighed 220 pounds at the time of his death. It has long been speculated that Neruda was planning to flee to Mexico to head a government-in-exile that would denounce Pinochet, and that Pinochet ordered a fatal dose of poison to be administered to him in the injection. Neruda's driver identified the doctor who gave the injection only as "Doctor Price"--and his description matched that of a known professional assassin named Michael Townley, who had worked for the CIA and for the Chilean secret police, and who is now living under the federal Witness Protection Program after a prison term for an earlier assassination. 

In 2013 authorities finally exhumed Neruda’s body but found no definitive evidence of poison. Nonetheless, in November of 2015 the Chilean government officially acknowledged a document that stated “it was clearly possible and highly likely” that Neruda was killed as a result of “the intervention of third parties.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sci-Fi novelist Jules Verne dead of diabetes complications at 77

Novelist Jules Verne, whose science fiction foretold the submarine, the dirigible, the steamship, the gas-powered automobile, glass skyscrapers, calculators, and the mile-a-minute train, died bitterly frustrated that he was repeatedly passed over for membership in the Academie Française, a lifelong goal. The second most translated author in history (after Agatha Christie), he entered into a contract early in his career to turn out two books a year for his publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, for 20,000 francs a year (about $100,000 today), and even though his books sales were in the millions, he stuck to this agreement until his death at age seventy-seven from complications of diabetes.

Verne was born February 8, 1828, in Nantes, in the northwest of France, to a Catholic family headed by a lawyer noted for his piety. He was sent to a series of religious schools, and then took a bachelor’s degree at Rennes, earning the grade “fairly good.” His father insisted that Jules should follow him in a law career, but he soon abandoned it to write novels and plays and mingle with the literati in Paris, where Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas fils were his friends and idols.

In 1856 Verne was in a friend’s wedding in Amiens, where he met and fell in love with the bride’s sister, Honorine Viane de Morel. They were married the following year, and Verne accepted an offer from her brother to work in his brokerage firm, rising early every morning to continue his writing. In 1862 he met and began his lifelong association with the publisher Hetzel, turning out such popular adventure novels as Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and dozens more. 

Verne was made a commander of the Legion of Honor, but although the Academie Française honored several of his novels, it declined to admit him to the august body of forty literary immortals. (Verne was in good company outside the Academie; other French writers who failed to make the cut include Molière, René  Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, Marcel Proust, and Jean-Paul Sartre.)

Despite his thorough Catholic upbringing, Verne became a Deist in his forties, hewing to a belief in a rational creator, but without the trappings of orthodox Christian dogma.

Verne suffered from illness for much of his life. When he was thirty-two he had an attack of facial paralysis, for which he received electric treatments. Five years later he had another such attack, which was not so readily alleviated and he suffered greatly from it. He developed diabetes, which contributed to a variety of ailments, including hypertension, ringing of the ears, frequent dizziness, spasmodic colitis, aerophagia (excessive swallowing of air, causing bloating, belching, and flatulence), and increasingly severe cataracts that left him nearly blind. 


In 1886 Verne’s psychotic nephew Gaston tried to kill him, but instead shot him in the ankle, resulting in an infection which caused him to limp for the rest of his life. His worsening stomach problems led him to adopt a diet exclusively of dairy products and eggs, of which he observed, “Living on a diet of milk and eggs, I feel neither good nor bad, ovarian, lactarian, or even vegetarian.”


Diabetes caught up with Verne in March of 1905, and he had a stroke that paralyzed the left side of the body.  He lingered for a couple of weeks at his home in Amiens and died on March 24, at 3:10 p.m. with his family at his side.  Newspaper accounts of his death reported that he remained conscious till the end and even calmly discussed his imminent departure from life. His sister Marie's account of his last moments is somewhat different:


He could not say anything coherently, and it became apparent that this was indeed the end. The paralysis was spreading, and…he was no longer our brother and his beautiful intelligence was no longer there; there was nothing but a body and a slowly departing soul. In short, our poor Jules has succumbed to diabetes that we were not monitoring. Last year, he suffered a bad episode, but after recovering, we thought no more about it. Although his wife looked after him admirably, she did let him do whatever he wanted.”

He is buried in La Madeleine Cemetery in Amiens.
Photo by Felix Nadar

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bohemian Wilkie Collins, inventor of the detective novel, dead of stroke at 65

Wilkie Collins, who invented the detective novel with The Woman in White and The Moonstone, led a bohemian life, dividing his time and his affections between women in two households, neither of whom he deigned to marry. Self-indulgent to an extreme degree, he was fond of pâté de foie gras, oysters, champagne by the pint, cigars, snuff, and laudanum, of which he could take in enough “to kill a ship's crew or company of soldiers.” It’s a wonder that he lived to be sixty-five, when he was felled by a paralytic stroke.

Collins was born January 8, 1824, in the Marylebone section of London to a prominent landscape painter, William Collins, and his wife, Harriet. He and his younger brother were home-schooled by their deeply religious evangelical mother, who enforced regular church attendance on the boys, much to Wilkie’s annoyance. At sixteen he was apprenticed to a tea-merchant, a job he hated, but stayed there for five years while also writing and publishing a few stories. He then began the study of law at Lincoln’s Inn, at the insistence of his father, and was called to the bar in 1851.

By this time, he was gaining some traction as a writer, so he never actually practiced law, devoting himself instead to his fiction and to hanging out with literary friends, especially his pal Charles Dickens.  Collins’ brother, Charles, married one of Dickens’ daughters. Except for the fact they did not meet until eight years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, the curmudgeonly Collins might well have been the model for Ebenezer Scrooge. In various letters, Collins expressed a sour view of the Christmas holidays: he refers to “filthy Christmas festivities… when the Plague of Plum pudding extends its ravages from end to end of the land, and lays the national digestion prostrate at the feet of Christmas.” And in another burst of Scrooge-like spleen: “the most hateful of all English seasons (to me), the season of Cant and Christmas”  

In 1859 Collins published his first major success, The Woman in White, an eerie mystery novel.  This was followed by such other well-received works as No Name, Armadale, and his crowning success, The Moonstone. These suspenseful works, which made pots of money, were serialized in magazines, giving rise to Collins’ favorite expression: “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

In 1858 Collins moved in with a neighbor named Caroline Graves and her daughter. Although they never married, they lived as man and wife for more than thirty years, except for a brief two-year period when Caroline married someone else, but then decided she would move back in with Collins.  Collins, meanwhile, struck up a relationship with another woman named Martha Rudd, whom he installed in a nearby house and with whom he had three children. When he was with her, he called himself William Dawson, and she and the children took the name Dawson as well.

Not surprisingly, given his diet and penchant for tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, Collins’ health began to deteriorate in the 1850s as he suffered constantly from what he called “rheumatic gout” and “neuralgia,” as well as failing eyesight.  He turned for relief to a variety of so-called cures: Turkish and electric baths, health spas, hypnotism, quinine, and, finally, opium in the form of laudanum in increasingly large quantities.

 Collins wavered between belief in the God of his evangelical upbringing and his later, doubt-ridden free-thinking. As for an afterlife, his friend Wybert Reeve wrote this about him after the death of his brother: “The death seemed to have made a strong impression on him, and led him to speak of a future state of existence, in which he had little belief. He was a Materialist, and urged that death meant a sleep of eternity; it was the natural end of all living things.” A few years before his own death, Collins mused as follows: “Are there not moments—if we dare to confess the truth—when poor humanity loses its hold on the consolations of religion and the hope of immortality, and feels the cruelty of creation that bids us live, on the condition that we die, and leads the first warm beginnings of love, with merciless certainty, to the cold conclusion of the grave?”

By the time he was in his late fifties, Collins’ health was a serious concern. Heart problems made him short of breath, and he began to take amyl nitrate and hypo-phosphate. In the last year of his life, he was thrown from a cab in a collision, and his injuries led to bronchitis, and on June 30 a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He lingered almost three months, growing steadily worse. Urged by a friend to go to the country for a more healthful environment, he declined, saying he was “too much of a cockney” to leave London. He died on September 23 in his home on Wimpole Street, at the age of sixty-five.
In his will (in which he left each of his “wives” the sum of £200—about £24,000 today), he expressed the wish to be buried in the cemetery at Kensal Green “and that over my grave there may be placed a plain stone cross and no other monument and that there shall be placed on such stone cross the inscription which my executors will find written and placed in the same envelope occupied by this my will and I desire that nothing shall be inscribed upon the said cross except the inscription which I have  herein before directed.” That inscription reads simply: “In memory of Wilkie Collins, author of ‘The Woman In White’ and other works of fiction.”

Friday, October 30, 2015

James Whitcomb Riley, Folksy Hoosier Poet, Dead of Stroke at 66

If James Whitcomb Riley, sometimes called the “Hoosier Poet” and sometimes the “Children’s Poet,” is remembered at all today, it is for a handful of humorous dialect verses that include “Little Orphant Annie,” “The Raggedy Man,” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin’.” But in his heyday in the 1880s and 1890s, he was widely read and immensely wealthy from both his verse and his popular public readings—which were so successful that Mark Twain, with whom Riley often shared the stage, refused to continue their joint appearances since he felt he was always upstaged. Despite his stardom, Riley was frequently so drunk he couldn’t perform.

This odd literary figure was born October 7, 1849, in Greenfield, Indiana, the son of a successful lawyer and his wife.  He began his working days as a sign painter, submitting bits of verse to newspapers on the side. Eventually he obtained a permanent job with the Indiana Journal, for which he wrote a society column studded with his verses. He also submitted his poetic output to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the nation’s most revered poet in the 1860s and 1870s, hoping for an endorsement. A few months before Longfellow’s death, Riley managed to barge his way into Longfellow’s home, even though doctors had ordered the ailing elder poet to receive no visitors.  Shortly after he died, Riley published embellished accounts of his visit and the praise that Longfellow had lavished upon him.  It wasn’t long until Riley was able to inherit the mantle of the nation’s leading poet.

Never married and fighting alcoholism all his life, Riley had a twelve-year on-and-off romance with a Greenfield schoolteacher named Clara Bottsford. Eventually his drinking caused them to split.

Riley took a boyish delight in playing pointless practical jokes. He would pretend to be blind and draw a crowd to watch him paint a sign. He once rigged up a long hose from an abandoned cellar to the adjacent building and projected his voice through the hose, calling out to passersby that he was trapped in the cellar. His most infamous prank backfired on him.  He persuaded the editor of the Kokomo Dispatch to publish a poem he had written in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, claiming it was a newly discovered unpublished piece of Poe’s work. It was picked up by a few other newspapers, but the sensational hoax Riley had hoped for did not materialize. The trouble was, the poem didn’t fool many people, and most critics said it wasn’t good enough to have been written by Poe.

Riley was reared a Methodist and maintained an affiliation with that church. His religious belief and his views of personal immortality conform to conventional Christian theology. In a poem called “The Evangelist,” he wrote:

            The Motive? That all tongues confess
            To Him—our Hope and Righteousness!
            Tho’ now the view be darkly dim,—
            Through faith we’ll win the world to Him!

            And Victory?  It will be won!
            God’s Promise—through His Promised Son!
            We’ll sing it in the realms above—
            Enraptured by Enraptured Love!

And in a poem entitled “We Must Believe,” he wrote:

                        O there must be
            Some fair, green, flowery pathway endlessly
            Winding through lands Elysian! Lord, receive
            And lead each as Thine Own Child--even the Chief
            Of us who didst Immortal life achieve....
            Lord, I believe:
            Help Thou mine unbelief.

By 1895 Riley was so successful he was earning $1,000 a week from his book sales and nationwide public readings—the equivalent of about $30,000 today. He received honorary degrees from Yale, Penn, and Indiana universities, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him a special medal for poetry.

But his persistent alcoholism caught up with him, and in 1901 he was diagnosed with a nervous disorder that his doctors called neurasthenia. It caused him constant fatigue, headaches, irritability, and emotional distress. He remained ill for the final fifteen years of his life. In 1909 he had an attack of Bell’s palsy, refusing to take any medicines except patent potions (which he used to peddle in his youth) and, of course, frequent doses of whiskey. In 1910 he had a stroke that paralyzed his right side, but after three years he was able to walk unsteadily with a cane.

On July 22, 1916, Riley suffered another stroke; he seemed to recover during that day and was able to joke with friends. But during that night he died in his sleep, at the age of sixty-six.

The governor of Indiana ordered that Riley’s body lie in state at the capitol building on Monday, July 24, from 3:00 until 6:00 p.m.—an honor that had been previously accorded by the state to only one person, Abraham Lincoln. More than 35,000 people filed past the open coffin, and thousands more were turned away. 

The following day at 2:30 p.m., with only family and close friends present, a funeral service at the Riley home on Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis was conducted by the Reverend Joseph A. Milburn, former pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis and a good friend of Riley’s. Riley’s body was loaded into a white hearse and taken to Crown Hill Cemetery, where he was interred in a flower-bedecked Gothic crypt with Turkish carpets on its floor. Riley’s hometown of Greenfield waged an ardent campaign to have his body moved to the family cemetery there, but Riley’s survivors decided that he would remain at Crown Hill permanently.

Note: Photo copyright by Moffatt, 1913

Friday, October 23, 2015

‘Thanatopsis’ poet William Cullen Bryant dead at 83 from head injuries in a fall

William Cullen Bryant had a long and distinguished career as an editor, orator, and poet, but he is now remembered mostly for only two poems: “To A Waterfowl” and his eloquent meditation on death, “Thanatopsis.” 

Born November 3, 1794, in a log cabin near Cummington, Massachusetts, to a doctor and his wife, both of whom traced their ancestries to the Mayflower,  William developed an interest in poetry at an early age.  He published poems when he was thirteen and was working on “Thanatopsis” by the time he was seventeen. He attended Williams College for one year, where he complained in a satirical verse the “pale-faced, moping students crawl / Like spectral monuments of woe.” He hoped to transfer to Yale, but family finances necessitated his apprenticeship at a law firm instead. He was admitted to the bar in 1815 and began a lackluster legal career, which lasted until 1825, when desire for the literary life impelled a move to New York City with his wife and daughter.

Bryant was fortunate to have connections, and he quickly landed the job of editor of the New-York Review, a literary journal. Then he became the assistant to the editor of the New-York Evening Post, a daily newspaper that had been founded by Alexander Hamilton. An unexpected turn of events just two years later—the editor fell ill owing to a stroke brought on by a duel—elevated Bryant to editor-in-chief of the paper, a post he held for the next half century.  He became a noted liberal voice in support of Andrew Jackson, organized labor, immigrants, minorities, tighter banking regulation, prison reform, and the abolition of slavery—and in opposition to the annexation of Texas.

He also became a widely respected poet, much of his work influenced by a group known as the “Graveyard Poets,” who included Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, and William Cowper, noted for their gloomy emphasis on mortality. This interest in death, along with Bryant’s Unitarian religious views, developed in his youth when he broke from the Calvinist teachings of the Congregational church in which he was raised, are reflected in “Thanatopsis.” In it, he writes:
                            When thoughts   
                Of the last bitter hour come like a blight   
                Over thy spirit, and sad images   
                Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,   
                And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,   
                Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—   
                Go forth, under the open sky, and list   
                To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—
                Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—
                Comes a still voice—
                             Yet a few days, and thee   
                The all-beholding sun shall see no more   
                In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,   
                Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,   
                Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist   
                Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim   
                Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
                And, lost each human trace, surrendering up   
                Thine individual being, shalt thou go   
                To mix for ever with the elements,   
                To be a brother to the insensible rock   
                And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain   
                Turns with his share, and treads upon.
                            All that breathe   
                Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
                When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care   
                Plod on, and each one as before will chase   
                His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave   
                Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
                And make their bed with thee.
                                 So live, that when thy summons comes to join   
                The innumerable caravan, which moves   
                To that mysterious realm, where each shall take   
                His chamber in the silent halls of death,   
                Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,   
                Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed   
                By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,   
                Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch   
                About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Of his own departure from life, Bryant said, “If I am worthy, I
would wish for sudden death, with no interregnum between I
cease to exercise reason and I cease to exist. But he expected
to be around for quite a long time. Just days before his death at
the age of eighty-three, he told a friend that he planned to live into his nineties. When asked on what he based that belief, he replied, “It is all summed up in one word—moderation. As you know, I am a moderate eater and drinker, and moderate in my work, as well as in my pleasures, and I believe the best way to preserve the physical and mental faculties is to keep them employed. Don’t allow them to rust.”

Alas, all that moderation came to naught. On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 29, 1878, Bryant delivered an address at the dedication of a bust of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini in New York’s Central Park. Bryant’s friend James Grant Wilson described his appearance on the podium: “a majestic man with his snow-white hair and flowing beard, his small, keen but gentle blue eyes, his light but firm lithe figure standing so erect and apparently with undiminished vigor, enunciating with such distinctness.” But Wilson went on to say that Bryant hesitated frequently during his speech and lost his place in his notes on several occasions.

Following the ceremony Wilson and his little daughter accompanied Bryant as they walked to Wilson’s home nearby. Wilson later recalled, “As we approached my house, about four o’clock, Mr. Bryant was… cheerfully conversing…as we walked up arm in arm, and all entered the vestibule. Disengaging my arm, I took a step in advance to open the inner door, and during those few seconds, without the slightest warning of any kind, the venerable poet, while my back was turned, dropped my daughter’s hand and fell suddenly backward through the open outer door, striking his head on the steps. I turned just in time to see the silvered head striking the stone, and, springing to his side, hastily raised him up. He was unconscious, and I supposed that he was dead.”

Ice water was applied to his head and Bryant was carried inside and laid on a sofa, still unconscious. In a few minutes he sat up, and drank a goblet of iced sherry, then said, “Where am I?  I do not feel at all well.  Oh, my head, my poor head.” After a while, Wilson accompanied Bryant to his own house, leaving him in the care of his niece, and then went to summon Bryant’s personal physician, Dr. John Gray.

Dr. Gray recounted: “I sent for Dr. Carnochan, the surgeon. He could find no injury to the skull, and therefore thought there was a chance of recovery. Mr. Bryant, during the first few days, would get up and walk about the library or sit in his favorite chair. He would occasionally say something about diet and air. When his daughter arrived from Atlantic City, where she had been for her health, she thought her father recognized her.  It is uncertain how far he recognized her or any of his friends.

“On the eighth day after the fall, hemorrhage took place in the brain, resulting in paralysis, technically called hemiplegia, and extending down the right side of the body. After this he was most of the time comatose. He was unable to speak and when he attempted to swallow, food lodged in his larynx and choked him. He was greatly troubled with phlegm, and could not clear his throat. There was only that one attack of hemorrhage of the brain, and that was due to what is called traumatic inflammation.”

Bryant died on June 12, two weeks after his fall, at the age of eighty-three. It is possible that an undiagnosed stroke caused his fall and the subsequent brain damage resulting in his death. 

A memorial service was held on June 14 at All Souls’ (Unitarian) Church on Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) at 20th Street. He was buried in Roslyn Cemetery in Nassau County, Long Island, where he had a summer home. Bryant Park, adjacent to the New York Public Library, was named in his honor in 1884.