Saturday, March 19, 2016

BIRTH: Mar. 19–Richard Burton (Trinity, Oxford)

Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1864.
Born Richard Francis Burton in 1821 in Torquay, Devonshire, England, he was the son of a prematurely retired army officer and had mixed English, Irish, and possibly French ancestry.

His father raised his two sons and daughter in France and Italy, where young Richard developed an unusual talent for languages.

Before entering Trinity College, Oxford, in 1840, he had become fluent in French, Italian, and the Béarnais and Neapolitan dialects, as well as having learned the requisite Greek and Latin.

But his continental upbringing left him ambivalent about his national identity. He complained that “England is the only country where I never feel at home.”

He didn't remember his time at Oxford with joy, but it was there that he, like later T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), learned Arabic. He went on to fight in the East India Company and learned Hindu, Persian, and local Indian languages. He wrote about his travels in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and he often disguised himself in local clothing. He was the first European to discover Lake Tanganyika.

He first became famous when he published A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855), about disguising himself to make the Hajj to Mecca, forbidden for non-Muslims. He published 43 books on his explorations and almost 30 more books of translations.

He wrote the definitive English translation of A Thousand Nights and a Night, (usually referred to as The Arabian Nights), and introduced The Kama Sutra to Western audiences.

Sir Richard Burton died October 20, 1890 in Trieste, then Austria-Hungary and now Italy.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

BIRTH: Mar. 2–Dr. Seuss (Lincoln, Oxford)

This date in 1904 was born the man who may be the best-selling children's-book writer of all time, Oxonian Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.  It is also National Read Across America Day, sponsored by the National Education Association.

Born in Springfield, Mass., Dr. Seuss helped revolutionize the way children learned to read He wrote more than 60 children's books.

His best-known books are And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), - How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), - The Cat in the Hat (1957), about which more below. - Yertle the Turtle (1958), - One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (1960), - Green Eggs and Ham (1960), - Hop on Pop (1963), - The Lorax (1971), - Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (1975), - The Butter Battle Book (1984).

Dr. Seuss was the grandson of German immigrants, a lifelong Lutheran. His six-foot mother was a competitive high diver who read to him daily at bedtime. His father inherited a brewery from his own German immigrant father a month before America's Prohibition era began, and eventually became a zookeeper who took young Theodor with him to work and let young Dr. Seuss run around in the cages with baby lions and baby tigers.

At Dartmouth, he majored in English and wrote for the campus humor magazine, rising to editor-in-chief. But after being caught drinking gin with friends, he was required by the Dartmouth administration to resign from all of his extracurricular activities.  From then on, he wrote secretly, over his mother's maiden name, Seuss. His mother's family pronounced it "Soise", but Americans pronounced it Soose. He decided to go with the Soose – it rhymed with Mother Goose.

After Dartmouth, he went on to Lincoln College, Oxford to study for a doctorate in English but at Oxford he met someone who told him he was wasting his time with literature when he was such a talented artist. So he left without finishing his degree. (Bill Clinton also left without taking his examinations for his degree, so Clinton was in good company.)

In 1937, he published his first children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

The favorite meters he uses in his poetry were:
  • Rhyming anapestic tetrameter. The Mulberry Street rhythm, which he said was inspired by the turning screws of an ocean steamship, is four bars of two weak beats followed by a stressed syllable, i.e.,  da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM, as in "And todáy the Great Yértle, that Márvelous hé / Is Kíng of the Múd. That is áll he can sée."  
  • Rhyming amphibrachic tetrameter, which is also four bars but begins and ends with an unstressed syllable, as in the title If Í Ran the Círcus
Dr. Seuss's poetry sounds breathless, but he took a long time composing it. He once said: "Writing for children is murder. Every word has to count." The Boston Globe has compared Dr. Seuss's Lorax character, who wants to stop the axing down of forests, to the spirit of Henry David Thoreau and Walden.

A book by Rudolf Flesch in the 1950s called Why Johnny Can't Read argued that the Dick and Jane primers being used to teach reading in America were boring and ineffective – I found them not terribly meaningful when I was first introduced to them by my grandmother in 1947-48. Why did Jane ask Spot to run? What kind of plot is that?

William Spaulding, from Houghton Mifflin, thought that maybe Dr. Seuss might be able to write a more grabby book that would make it easier to teach from.  He asked Dr. Seuss for "a story that first-graders can't put down!" Garrison Keillor describes what happened in The Writer's Almanac:
In 1955, Seuss was given a list of 300 words most first-graders know. He had to write the book using only those words. [... T]wo words jumped out at him: "cat" and "hat." Seuss spent the next nine months writing The Cat in the Hat (1957), [which] is 1,702 words long and uses only 220 different words. [W]ithin the first year of its publication it was selling 12,000 copies a month. [Within five years, it had sold a million copies.] Seuss's publisher then bet him $50 he could not write a book using only 50 different words. Seuss won again with Green Eggs and Ham (1960), which uses exactly 50 different words, only one [with] more than one syllable: "anywhere."
Seuss died in the seaside resort community of La Jolla, San Diego, Calif. on September 26, 1991 (New York Times obit).

Other Oxford obits.

More March Birthdays. For more write-ups of authors for kids, visit the children's literature wiki.