Literary Birthdays – Week of March 29 – April 4


March 29
Lennart Meri (b. 1929) – Estonian history and travel writer, President of Estonia from 1992 to 2001 – Virmaliste väraval / At the Gate of Northern Light (1974)

March 30

Moses Maimonides (b. 1135) – Spanish/Egyptian Jewish philosopher – Mishneh Torah (compilation of Jewish law) (1180)

See Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg speak about Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah on YouTube:

March 31

René Descartes (b. 1596) – French philosopher – A Discourse on Method

Excerpt from A Discourse on Method:

And although in reality Logic contains many
precepts which are very true and very good, there are at the
same time mingled with them so many others which are hurtful
or superfluous, that it is almost as difficult to separate
the two as to draw a Diana or a Minerva out of a block of
marble which is not yet roughly hewn. …

This made me feel that some other Method must be found, which, comprising the advantages of the three, is yet exempt from their faults. And as a multiplicity of laws often furnishes excuses for evil-doing, and as a State is hence much better ruled when, having but very few laws, these are most strictly observed; so, instead of the great number of precepts of which Logic is composed, I believed that I should find the four which I shall state quite sufficient, provided that I adhered to a firm and constant resolve never on any single occasion to fail in their observance.

The first of these was to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognize to be so: that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it.

The second was to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible.

The third was to carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with objects that were the most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise little by little, or by degrees, to knowledge of the most complex, assuming an order, even if a fictitious one, among those which do not follow a natural sequence relatively to one another.

The last was in all cases to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing.

April 1

Edmond Rostand (b. 1868) – French playwright, poet – Cyrano de Bergerac

Excerpt from Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac:

Ah no! young blade! That was a trifle short!
You might have said at least a hundred things
By varying the tone. . .like this, suppose,. . .

Aggressive: ‘Sir, if I had such a nose
I’d amputate it!’

Friendly: ‘When you sup
It must annoy you, dipping in your cup;
You need a drinking-bowl of special shape!’

Descriptive: ”Tis a rock!. . .a peak!. . .a cape!
–A cape, forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsula!’

Curious: ‘How serves that oblong capsular?
For scissor-sheath? Or pot to hold your ink?’

Gracious: ‘You love the little birds, I think?
I see you’ve managed with a fond research
To find their tiny claws a roomy perch!’

Truculent: ‘When you smoke your pipe. . .suppose
That the tobacco-smoke spouts from your nose–
Do not the neighbors, as the fumes rise higher,
Cry terror-struck: “The chimney is afire”?’

Considerate: ‘Take care,. . .your head bowed low
By such a weight. . .lest head o’er heels you go!’

Tender: ‘Pray get a small umbrella made,
Lest its bright color in the sun should fade!’

Pedantic: ‘That beast Aristophanes
Names Hippocamelelephantoles
Must have possessed just such a solid lump
Of flesh and bone, beneath his forehead’s bump!’

Cavalier: ‘The last fashion, friend, that hook?
To hang your hat on? ‘Tis a useful crook!’

Emphatic: ‘No wind, O majestic nose,
Can give THEE cold!–save when the mistral blows!’

Dramatic: ‘When it bleeds, what a Red Sea!’

Admiring: ‘Sign for a perfumery!’

Lyric: ‘Is this a conch?. . .a Triton you?’

Simple: ‘When is the monument on view?’

Rustic: ‘That thing a nose? Marry-come-up!
‘Tis a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize turnip!’

Military: ‘Point against cavalry!’

Practical: ‘Put it in a lottery!

Assuredly ‘twould be the biggest prize!’
Or. . .parodying Pyramus’ sighs. . .
‘Behold the nose that mars the harmony
Of its master’s phiz! blushing its treachery!’

–Such, my dear sir, is what you might have said,
Had you of wit or letters the least jot:
But, O most lamentable man!–of wit
You never had an atom, and of letters
You have three letters only!–they spell Ass!

See a scene of Gerard Depardieu playing Cyrano in this 1990 film excerpt:

April 2

Émile Zola (b. 1840) – French novelist – La Ventre de Paris / The Belly of Paris (1873)

Read this Chocolate & Zucchini blog entry about The Belly of Paris:

April 3

Herb Caen (b. 1916) – U.S. newspaper columnist

Read Caen’s 1958 San Francisco Chronicle column where he coins the term “Beatnik”:

Washington Irving (born April 3, 1783) – U.S. poet, short story writer, essayist – The Life of George Washington

Excerpt from Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle”

On awaking, he found himself on the green knoll from whence he had first seen the old man of the glen. He rubbed his eyes—it was a bright sunny morning. The birds were hopping and twittering among the bushes, and the eagle was wheeling aloft and breasting the pure mountain breeze. “Surely,” thought Rip, “I have not slept here all night.” He recalled the occurrences before he fell asleep. The strange man with a keg of liquor—the mountain ravine—the wild retreat among the rocks—the woe-begone party at ninepins—the flagon—“Oh! that flagon! that wicked flagon!” thought Rip—“what excuse shall I make to Dame Van Winkle?”
He looked round for his gun, but in place of the clean, well-oiled fowling piece, he found an old firelock lying by him, the barrel incrusted with rust, the lock falling off, and the stock worm-eaten. He now suspected that the grave roysters of the mountain had put a trick upon him, and having dosed him with liquor, had robbed him of his gun. Wolf, too, had disappeared, but he might have strayed away after a squirrel or partridge. He whistled after him, shouted his name, but all in vain; the echoes repeated his whistle and shout, but no dog was to be seen.

* * *
Rip bethought himself a moment, and then inquired, “Where’s Nicholas Vedder?”
There was silence for a little while, when an old man replied in a thin, piping voice, “Nicholas Vedder? why, he is dead and gone these eighteen years! There was a wooden tombstone in the churchyard that used to tell all about him, but that’s rotted and gone, too.”
“Where’s Brom Dutcher?”
“Oh, he went off to the army in the beginning of the war; some say he was killed at the battle of Stony Point—others say he was drowned in a squall, at the foot of Antony’s Nose. I don’t know—he never came back again.”
“Where’s Van Bummel, the schoolmaster?”

“He went off to the wars, too, was a great militia general, and is now in Congress.”
Rip’s heart died away, at hearing of these sad changes in his home and friends, and finding himself thus alone in the world. Every answer puzzled him, too, by treating of such enormous lapses of time, and of matters which he could not understand: war—Congress—Stony Point!—he had no courage to ask after any more friends, but cried out in despair. “Does nobody here know Rip Van Winkle?”

“Oh, Rip Van Winkle!” exclaimed two or three, “Oh, to be sure! that’s Rip Van Winkle yonder, leaning against the tree.”

Rip looked, and beheld a precise counterpart of himself, as he went up the mountain: apparently as lazy, and certainly as ragged. The poor fellow was now completely confounded. He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man. In the midst of his bewilderment, the man in the cocked hat demanded who he was, and what was his name?
“God knows,” exclaimed he, at his wit’s end; “I’m not myself—I’m somebody else—that’s me yonder—no—that’s somebody else, got into my shoes—I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”

April 4

Maya Angelou (b. 1928) – U.S. poet, autobiographer – Hallelujah! The Welcome Table

See Maya Angelou recite her poem In and Out of Time on YouTube:
Tavis Smiley remembers Maya Angelou:


About litbirthdays

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2 Responses to Literary Birthdays – Week of March 29 – April 4

  1. Don’t forget – April 3, 1783, the birth of Washington Irving!

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