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Shakespeare, Potter & the Bodleian

Nov 8, 2007

On this day in 1602 the refurbished Bodleian Library at Oxford University was officially opened to the public. Sir Thomas Bodley, a wealthy retired diplomat, made it his cause to restore what had been in ruin for a half-century, spending four years and his own and his friends' money to repair buildings and fill bookshelves. Sir Francis Bacon praised Bodley for "having built an ark to save learning from the deluge," though not all books — including Shakespeare's — were welcome aboard. [full story]


John Milton died on this day in 1674, aged sixty-five. Having been so outspoken on the side of Cromwell and the republic, Milton’s fortunes took a tumble with the restoration of the Stuarts. Beyond the religious-political wrath, his last years were also beset by family and physical problems, most famously his blindness. Adding it all up, Milton’s biographers read Samson Agonistes, the last of his great poems, as his most personal and most vehement: “The Hebrew Samson among the Philistines and the English Milton among the Londoners of the reign of Charles II were, to all poetic intents, one and the same person” (A. L. Rowse). At the beginning of the poem, as the Philistines enjoy a holiday, their blind captive uses his day off from “my task of servile toil” to contemplate his fall:


Ease to the body some, none to the mind
From restless thoughts, that like a deadly swarm
Of hornets arm'd, no sooner found alone,
But rush upon me thronging, and present
Times past, what once I was, and what am now.

A few lines further on comes the phrase which Aldous Huxley plucked out for his 1936 novel:


                  O glorious strength
Put to the labour of a beast, debas'd
Lower than bondslave! Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke.


Twenty-eight-year-old Eudora Welty published six photographs in Life magazine on this day in 1937, these selected from the many photos she had taken recently while touring her home state of Mississippi as an employee of the WPA, the Depression-era New Deal agency. The previous year, Welty had exhibited her photos in New York, and also published her first short story; it is possible that she might have become a photographer, instead of a writer with a photographer’s eye:

Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had.  (One Writer’s Beginnings)

Welty’s photographs were not published in book form until much later in her life. Her introductory comments to a 1971 edition of One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression explain that her documentary photos of the South’s rural poor are not art — only “a better and less ignorant photographer” could have accomplished that. Nor are they the product of “a social-worker photographer” —  a Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. They are a simple record of “one time and one place,” by a woman “part of it, born into it.” Welty then alludes to the racially charged atmosphere of  1960s America:


In taking all these picture, I was attended, I now know, by an angel—a presence of trust. In particular, the photographs of black persons by a white person may not testify soon again to such intimacy. It is a trust that dates the pictures now, more than the vanished years. …I wished no more to indict anybody, to prove or disprove anything by my pictures, than I would have wished to do harm to the people in them, or have expected any harm from them to come to me.

On this day in 1965, The Autobiograhy of Malcolm X was published. Below, a passage scoffing at the white man's perspective:

It's a crime, the lie that has been told to generations of black men and white men both. Little innocent black children, born of parents who believed that their race had no history. Little black children seeing, before they could talk, that their parents considered themselves inferior. Innocent black children growing up, living out their lives, dying of old age-and all of their lives ashamed of being black. But the truth is pouring out of the bag now.

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