Friday, September 25, 2015

‘Enfant Terrible’ Poet Arthur Rimbaud Dead of Bone Cancer at 37

There has never been an enfant more terrible than Arthur Rimbaud. An accomplished poet while still in primary school, he began a torrid love affair at seventeen with poet Paul Verlaine, ten years his senior. He moved in with Verlaine and his wife and was a houseguest from hell: his room was a squalid sty, he indulged heavily in absinthe and hashish, he sunbathed stark naked in the front garden, he picked lice from his overgrown hair and flicked them onto visitors, he smashed china, he desecrated an heirloom crucifix, he sold some of his hosts’ furniture, and he used a magazine containing poems by a friend of Verlaine’s for toilet paper. Verlaine, enamored of the boy, was delighted with his antics.

Throughout these rambunctious teen years Rimbaud created a body of poems, including Le Bateau ivre, Une Saison en Enfer, and Illuminations,  that became hallmarks of French surrealism.  But he stopped writing before he was twenty-one, and never turned out another line of verse.

Rimbaud was born October 20, 1854, in Charleville in the Ardennes region of northern France. His father was an infantry officer frequently away from home, and Arthur’s parents separated when he was six, leaving him to be raised by his rigid, narrow-minded, humorless, miserly mother, whom he called the “mouth of darkness.” A priest at the Pension Rossat, where Arthur was enrolled, inspired him to love Greek, Latin, and French literature, and encouraged him to write poetry. Arthur’s first verse was published when he was fifteen.

By the time he was seventeen, Rimbaud had become a dyed-in-the-wood rebel: he consumed alcohol, wrote obscene poems, stole books, and allowed his appearance to grow unkempt and disheveled. Rimbaud made his connection with Verlaine by sending him letters and samples of his own poetry. Verlaine replied with a one-way train ticket to Paris and a letter that read, “Come, dear great soul.  We await you. We desire you.”

Desire him, Verlaine did. They had a stormy and scandalous affair—the twenty-seven-year-old, newly married established literary figure, with the seventeen-year-old country lad. They indulged in absinthe and hashish, and reveled in their sexual excesses, even collaborating on a “Sonnet du trou du cul”—which can most politely be translated as “Sonnet in Praise of the Butthole,” and whose contents are decidedly pornographic. Rimbaud entered into a prolific period of creativity during the next three years, turning out virtually his entire body of work in that time.

In 1872 Verlaine abandoned his wife and child and took Rimbaud with him to England, where they lived in Bloomsbury and Camden Town, and scraped a living by teaching and an allowance from Verlaine’s mother. Rimbaud stuck to his writing in the Reading Room of the British Museum to take advantage of the free heating, lighting, pens, and ink. After several months in London, Verlaine went to Brussels, where he asked his mother and Rimbaud to join him at the Hotel Liège.  Now drinking even more heavily, Verlaine bought a pistol, with which he intended to commit suicide, but instead he used it to shoot Rimbaud in the wrist during a violent lovers’ quarrel. Rimbaud declined to press charges but wisely decided to hightail it out of Brussels. On the way to the train station, Verlaine threatened him again, and Rimbaud summoned a police officer and had him arrested. Verlaine served two years in prison for the assault.

Rimbaud returned home to Charleville and wrote his last verses, after which he abandoned poetry forever. In 1875 he and Verlaine met for the last time. Verlaine had become an exceedingly pious Catholic, and Rimbaud described him as “clutching a rosary in his claws.” They parted on chilly terms.

In 1876 Rimbaud went to Vienna, where he was robbed of all his money and stripped of his clothes by a cab driver. The French consul general arranged for his passage back to France. Then he joined the Dutch Colonial Army and served in the East Indies, but deserted into the Indonesian jungle and eventually found his way back to France once more. He went to Cyprus as a stone quarry foreman, from there to Yemen,  and then to Harar, Ethiopia, as a coffee merchant, gun runner, and slave trader.

Back in Paris, the name of Rimbaud was becoming well-known from the works that had been published earlier.  In Africa, his personality could hardly have been more different from the wild days of his youth. People who knew him said he was taciturn, withdrawn, gruff, and unsociable, but honest and methodical as a trader, with a dry sense of humor. He led a simple, almost ascetic, life, and he delighted in helping the poor.

In February of 1891, when he was thirty-six, he noticed a pain in his right knee, which made it difficult to walk, and he assumed it was arthritis. When it became more troublesome, he had a canvas stretcher made and was carried on it more than 150 miles across the desert to the port of Zeila in Somaliland. From there, he sailed to Aden, Yemen, where he saw a European doctor, who misdiagnosed his ailment as tubercular synovitis, an inflammation of the membrane around the kneejoints, frequently seen in rheumatoid arthritis.  He recommended immediate amputation of the leg.

Rimbaud remained in Aden until May 7, when he took the steamer L’Amazone on a thirteen-day voyage to Marseille, where he was admitted to Conception Hospital, and on May 27 underwent amputation of his leg.  It was discovered that he was actually suffering from osteosarcoma, advanced bone cancer, and had only a few months to live. He wrote to his sister Isabelle: “What a nuisance, what a bore, what misery when I think of my former travels, and how active I was just 5 months ago! Where is my skipping across mountains, the walks, the treks through deserts, across rivers, and over seas? And now, the life of a one-legged cripple…. And to think I had decided to come back to France this summer to get married! Goodbye to wedding, goodbye to family, goodbye to future! My life is gone, I'm no more than an immobile trunk.”

Isabelle joined him in Marseille and remained with him during his last days, engineering his deathbed conversion to the Catholic Church. She wrote to their mother in Charleville on October 28: “He is no longer a poor, unrepentant sinner.  He is now a saint, a martyr, one of the just, one of the chosen! Sunday morning, after mass, one of the priests came to see him and offered to hear his confession—and he accepted! As he left, the priest told me, ‘Your brother has the true faith. I have never seen faith of this quality.’ I kissed the ground with joy.  There is joy, even in his death, now that his soul is saved!”

Despite his repentance, the priest did not offer Rimbaud communion since he felt he was too weak to receive it and might vomit on the host.

Isabelle described her brother’s condition: “His stump is extremely swollen.  There is an enormous cancerous growth between his hip and his belly, just on top of the bone.  All the doctors—ten of them have visited him—seem terrified by this strange cancer. They say his case is unique, and there is something about it they don’t understand. Arthur’s head and left arm are in great pain, but he usually remains in a a deep lethargy, apparently sleeping.  At night he has a morphine injection.  When he wakes, he says odd things, thinking we are in Ethiopia or Yemen and must find camels and organize a caravan…He has the thinness of a skeleton and the color of a corpse. And his poor limbs are all paralyzed, mutilated, and dead around him.  O God, how pitiful!” 

Rimbaud died on November 10, 1891, at the age of thirty-seven.  He was buried at his place of birth in Charleville.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Rheumatic heart killed Scottish poet Robert Burns, 37, after tooth pulled

Voted “Greatest Scot of All Time,” poet Robert Burns won a 2009 ballot over “Braveheart” William Wallace, penicillin discoverer Alexander Fleming, “Dr. Who” star David Tennant, magnate Andrew Carnegie, and comedian Billy Connolly. Poor Sir Sean Connery, Bond credentials and all, didn’t make it into the top ten finalists.                     Painting by Alexander Nasmyth

What vaulted the Bard of Ayrshire to this pinnacle were poems and lyrics like Tam o’ Shanter, “My Luve Is Like A Red, Red Rose,” “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” the annually inevitable “Auld Lang Syne”—and hundreds of others that embody and preserve Scottish heritage. This tragic figure lived his entire life on the edge of poverty and died at age thirty-seven on the same day his wife gave birth to his fourteenth child.

Born in Alloway, Scotland, on January 25, 1759, he was the first of seven children of a tenant farmer who moved from farm to farm and never had much success. Robert was mostly home-schooled. His father died in bankruptcy in 1784, and he and his brother continued to work their farm, with back-breaking labor and little to show for it, except Robert’s contracting rheumatic fever, which brought about his premature death following the extraction of a tooth.

Something of a tomcat when it came to romance, Burns dallied with a number of local women and fathered his first child in 1785. One biographer said of him, “It was not so much that he was conspicuously sinful as that he sinned conspicuously.” In 1786 Burns married Jean Armour and took a low-paid position as an excise officer. He scrabbled all his life to support his rapidly expanding family, while devoting all his spare time to ballads, songs, poems, and letters to his friends. 

Raised as a liberal Calvinist who never really accepted the notion of predestination of the select, he confided his religious views in a letter to a friend:
“I am in perpetual warfare with that doctrine of our Reverend Priesthood, that 'we are born into this world bond slaves of iniquity and heirs of perdition; wholly inclined to that which is evil and wholly disinclined to that which is good until by a kind of Spiritual Filtration or rectifying process Called effectual Calling & etc.-' I believe in my conscience that the case is just quite contrary. We came into this world with a heart and disposition to do good for it, until by dashing a large mixture of base Alloy called Prudence alias Selfishness, the too precious Metal of the Soul is brought down to the blackguard Sterling of ordinary currency...”

Never very firm in his religious beliefs, Burns vacillated on the subject of an afterlife. “Jesus Christ,” he once wrote, “thou amiablest of characters, I trust thou art no Imposter, and that thy revelation of blissful scenes of existence beyond death and the grave, is not one of the many impositions which time after time have been palmed off on a credulous mankind.” One commentator called Burns “a wistful agnostic.”

Burns’ death on July 21, 1796, has been the subject of much speculation. His earliest biographer, Dr. James Currie, blamed it on excessive drinking and womanizing that led to venereal disease. Though there is no question Burns seldom said no to a “wee doch and dorris,” evidence indicates that his death was caused by bacterial endocarditis acquired with the extraction of a tooth and introduced into his bloodstream by a heart valve damaged by rheumatic fever.

As he lay ill, knowing that he was dying, his wit and sense of humor did not abandon him. When he looked up and saw his friend and physician, Dr. William Maxwell, at his bedside, he said,  "Alas! What has brought you here? I am but a poor crow and not worth plucking." Maxwell described Burns’ last moments: “When his attendant, James Maclure, held a cordial to his lips, he swallowed it eagerly - rose almost wholly up - spread out his hands - sprang forward nigh the whole length of the bed - fell on his face and expired.”

Burns’ funeral five days later was attended by a large crowd of mourners and he was laid to rest in St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries. Through his twelve children who survived to adulthood, Burns now has more than 600 living descendants.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Author known as O. Henry dead at 47 of liver cirrhosis, diabetes, heart ailment

William Sidney Porter wasn’t satisfied with the name he was born with.  He changed the spelling of “Sidney” to “Sydney” to add a bit of class.  When he began publishing short stories (while in prison) he used the pseudonym “O. Henry,” a name with many explanations. And when he entered the hospital shortly before his untimely death at age forty-seven, he listed his name as “Will S. Parker.”

This chameleonesque author was born September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina, the son of a physician and his tubercular wife, who died of that disease when young William was three.  He attended a private grammar school operated by his aunt, who continued to tutor him into his teenage years. He worked at an uncle’s drug store, and at nineteen became a licensed pharmacist. Beset by a persistent cough and fearing the onset of the disease that killed his mother, he moved to a ranch owned by a friend in LaSalle County, in south Texas, where he worked as a ranch hand and household helper.

In 1884 he moved to Austin, where he found work as a pharmacist. He met a seventeen-year-old girl named Athol Estes, who also suffered from tuberculosis, and over the objections of her parents eloped with her. They had a son who died in childbirth, and the following year a daughter named Margaret. Athol encouraged her husband’s literary bent, and he began to write poems and stories.

A friend named Richard Hall was elected Texas Land Commissioner and offered Porter a job as a map draftsman in the General Land Office at a salary of $100 a month. When Hall ran for governor, he lost to James S. Hogg, and Porter was quickly out of a job. He soon found another, as a teller and bookkeeper at Austin’s First National Bank.  Procedures were lax at the bank: customers were known to step behind the counter, take a couple of hundred dollars from the cash drawer, and leave an informal IOU, if they remembered to do so. Not surprisingly a year-end audit could not be reconciled, and Porter was accused of embezzlement. He was fired, but not formally charged.

He then founded a humorous weekly magazine that he called The Rolling Stone, which went belly up after about a year. His work had attracted the attention of editors at The Houston Post, and they offered Porter a job as a columnist at $25 a month, and he and his family moved to Houston.

After Porter had been at The Post less than a year, government auditors at the Austin bank uncovered evidence that resulted in his indictment and arrest on the embezzlement charges. His father-in-law got him out of jail on bail, and the day before his trial, Porter skipped out on a train to New Orleans and from there sailed to Honduras. He spent several months in a Trujillo hotel, where he wrote the novel Cabbages and Kings, which takes place in the fictional country of Anchuria, for which he coined the descriptive term “banana republic.”

In February of 1897 Porter learned that his wife was dying of tuberculosis and he returned to her side, although he knew it would mean his arrest. Once again out on bail, he remained with her until her death in July of 1897.  Then he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in a federal prison in Ohio.

While in prison, Porter published numerous short stories, many of them under the “pen” name O. Henry. Why O. Henry? One story is that there was a guard captain named Orrin Henry, who signed himself as “O. Henry,” and Porter borrowed the name.  Another insists it is a cryptic construction from the first two letters of Ohio and the second two and last two of penitentiary. Yet another tale is that an Austin family with whom Porter stayed had a cat named Henry the Proud and he was regularly called with the phrase “Henry, oh, Henry!”  Porter gave his own explanation to The New York Times:
“It was during the New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: ‘I'm going to send out some stuff. I don't know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias.’ He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. ‘Here we have our notables,’ said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry. ‘That'll do for a last name,’ said I. ‘Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me.’ ‘Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?’ asked my friend. ‘Good,’ said I, ‘O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is.’"

Whatever the truth, when Porter was released for good behavior after serving three years, he reunited with his daughter (who never knew where her father had been) and eventually moved to New York, where he became a well established literary figure as O. Henry, turning out almost 400 short stories noted for their ironic twist endings. He was married again in 1907, to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Coleman, now also a writer, whom he saw while on a visit to North Carolina. She left him after two years, disgusted with his heavy drinking, which had begun to affect his health.

Porter developed diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, and an enlarged heart.  He spent time seeking cures for his ailments in both North Carolina and New York, where he continued to write in a studio he kept in the Caledonia Hotel on West 26th St. and Sixth Avenue. He made his home at the nearby Chelsea Hotel.

O. Henry scholar Tom Dodge wrote of him during this period: “He was sociable and reserved, partial to prostitutes yet prudish, and outrageously generous with all but landlords and bill collectors. His daughter's tuition was $1,000 a year; his fondness for fine clothes, perfume, female companionship, and his superhuman thirst for whiskey required lots of money. He earned $12,000 some years and borrowed as much from editors. It was never enough. His account was always in the loss column.”

Ill as he was, Porter gave little serious thought to mortality. When someone asked him his views about the possibility of an afterlife, he responded with a verse:
             I had a little dog
            And his name was Rover,
            And when he died
            He died all over.

On the afternoon of June 3, 1910, Gilman Hall, an editor at Ainslee’s magazine, received a telephone message from Porter asking him to come to the Caledonia Hotel. He found Porter collapsed on the floor, and he summoned Dr. Charles Russell Hancock, who had him taken to the Polyclinic Hospital on East 34th Street. Porter insisted on using the name “Will S. Parker” to prevent unwanted publicity. Dr. Hancock reported of his final moments: “He was perfectly conscious until within two minutes of his death Sunday morning and knew that the end was approaching. I never saw a man pluckier in facing it or in bearing pain. Nothing appeared to worry him at the last. Just before sunrise he said to those around him: ‘Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.’  The sunlight was on his face as he passed.” Porter was forty-seven.

The funeral was at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, known as the Little Church Around the Corner, on East 29th Street. Because he had used a fictitious name at the hospital, hardly anyone other than his family knew he had died, and there were few mourners, no music, no eulogy, and no mention of the name O. Henry. The service was a hurried one, since a wedding party scheduled at the same time were eager to get into the church. Porter was buried at the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Troubled Guy de Maupassant, 42, “coveted everything, took pleasure in nothing,” dead of syphilis in an asylum

Guy de Maupassant deplored the structure that has become the quintessential symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. He lunched regularly at the restaurant on its ground floor because it was the only place in Paris from which the looming image of the Tower was not visible. Along with other intellectuals including Charles Gounod, Alexandre Dumas fils, and Victorien Sardou,  Maupassant published a vituperative protest deploringthe useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower” with which Paris was “making itself irreparably ugly.”

Maupassant, who achieved fame with his short stories and novels, lived a troubled life and died in a lunatic asylum where he was confined after plunging a sharp letter opener into his throat. Born in a chateau to a privileged family in Étretat, near Dieppe, on the English Channel, on August 5, 1850, Guy and his mother were abandoned by his father, a notorious womanizer, when the boy was eleven. His well-read mother brought him up on literary classics and then sent him to a rigid church school, which he hated and which inculcated in him a lifelong aversion to religion. Later he was sent to the more congenial Lycée Pierre Corneille, where he excelled in academics, poetry, and dramatics. 

When he was eighteen, Maupassant saved the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne from drowning off the coast near Étretat, and Swinburne expressed his gratitude by inviting young Guy to lunch, serving monkey-meat, plying him with liquor, showing him a portfolio of pornographic pictures, and trying without success to seduce him. It wasn’t that Guy was prudish; he simply preferred the affections of women of dubious morals to that of decadent male poets.

After serving briefly in the army, Maupassant got a job as a government clerk and began to write short stories on the side. He moved in Parisian literary circles and was friendly with Gustave Flaubert, who became his mentor, and with Alexandre Dumas fils, Émile Zola, Henry James, Charles Gounod, Hippolyte Taine, Ivan Turgenev, and many other artistic figures. In 1880 he published a short story called “Roly-Poly” (“Boule de Suif”), and it was a huge success with the reading public. A prolific writer, he turned out three or four volumes of stories every year, grew wealthy, acquired a yacht, traveled widely, and lived a seemingly carefree bachelor’s life in Paris, where he was no stranger to the allure of fashionable brothels.

It was his penchant for prostitutes that brought Maupassant’s downfall. When he was in his late thirties, he began to feel unwell, suffering a skin rash and heart palpitations. His doctor diagnosed a rheumatic condition, but his old friend Flaubert suggested another cause: “Come, my dear friend,” he wrote to Maupassant, “you seem very worried. You could make better use of your time. I suspect you have become a bit of a loafer, and have weakened yourself with too many whores, too much rowing and too much exercise.”  Flaubert was not far off the mark, for Maupassant’s symptoms were the onset of syphilis. 

As the disease attacked his spinal cord, he grew despondent and attempted to shoot himself.  Having failed at that attempt at suicide, he plunged a letter-opener into this throat, which also fell short of fatality.  The next day he was committed to the asylum of Esprit Blanche in Passy, near Paris. He died there a few months later of the ravages of syphilis, on July 6, 1893, a month short of his forty-third birthday.

Maupassant is buried in the Cemetery of Montparnasse.  The epitaph he wrote for himself is a sad commentary on his life: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.”