May 6th 1940: Grapes of Wrath wins Pulitzer


John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)


On this day in 1940 the novel The Grapes of Wrath by American author John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Steinbeck is best known for this novel, and for his other works including Of Mice and Men (1937)and East of Eden (1952). Steinbeck was critically lauded both in his lifetime and beyond, winning a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 just six years before his death at 66. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) focuses on the Joad family and their troubles during the Great Depression, which meant that the novel resonated with its contemporary readers who had lived through the Depression.



First edition cover of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’


Despite its popularity and critical success, the book disgusted many groups who burned it in protest at how Steinbeck supposedly exaggerated the plight of the poor to make a political point about the greed of the rich, labelling it socialist propaganda. However, the novel is now widely loved and considered an exemplary piece of social commentary, fully deserving of its Pulitzer.


April 23rd 1616: William Shakespeare dies



William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)


On this day in 1616, the famous English poet and playwright William Shakespeare passed away on his 52nd birthday. Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon,  became famous for his plays including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear; he wrote around 38 plays and 154 sonnets. He was married to a woman named Anne Hathaway and had three children. In his will he left most of his estate to his eldest daughter Susanna and to his wife left “my second best bed”. He was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church.



His birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon


Today, on the 450thS anniversary of his birth, Shakespeare is still considered one of the greatest writers of the English language in history. School children and university students across the globe study his work, and his plays continue to draw huge crowds. Big-name actors still feel most at home performing a Shakespeare play – just take the recent success of David Tennant’s Hamlet and Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus.



Shakespeare’s grave


“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake, forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed he that moves my bones.”
– Shakespeare’s epitaph

March 26th 1830: The Book of Mormon published


1830 edition of the Book of Mormon


On this day in 1830, the Book of Mormon was first published at E.B Grandin’s New York bookstore. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr, claimed that he had been visited by an angel called Moroni who told him of ancient writings on golden plates which described people whom God led to the Western hemisphere before the birth of Jesus. These plates were supposedly found by Smith buried by a tree on a hill in his back yard. Smith said he was told by Moroni to translate the plates into English and publish them. Smith initially struggled to find someone to publish the book as many considered it risky, fraudulent and blasphemous. Smith and his friend Martin Harris began work on translating the Book of Mormon, with Smith dictating by either reading directly or using seer stones placed in a top hat (accounts vary).



A page from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon


Work was halted when Harris’s wife stole some pages of the manuscript. Translation recommenced in 1829 and was soon finished and ready for publication and sale in March 1830. It took eight men and boys working 12 hours a day, six days a week, for almost eight months to print the initial 5,000 copies. Upon the book’s publication Smith said he returned the plates to Moroni. The building in New York where the Book of Mormon was first published and sold is now the Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site.



Printing press where book was published


Mormonism continues to be a prominent religion in the United States and abroad. Despite enduring questions about the origins of the religion – many believe Smith planted the plates or made them up altogether – it still has a large following. Mitt Romney, in the 2012 election, became the first Mormon presidential candidate in the United States. I have been interested in Mormonism for some time, though I must admit my interest has been encouraged by seeing the musical ‘The Book of Mormon’. Even though the musical is a parody of Mormonism (‘I Believe’ explicitly pokes fun at Mormon beliefs and ‘All-American Prophet’ mocks the origins story recounted here), I thought it was surprisingly gentle considering some other things Matt Stone and Trey Parker have done. I personally didn’t see it as a vicious attack on Mormons or their beliefs, however as I am not a Mormon I cannot say it hasn’t offended anyone. I would always recommend reading historical and contemporary material on the religion, but if you’re a fan of Matt and Trey (and even if not!), ‘The Book of Mormon’ is a fantastic musical and a good laugh.

March 25th 1811: Shelley expelled from Oxford


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)


On this day in 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. Shelley is best known as a famous English poet, who was part of a group of fellow prominent writers including his wife Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. As well as being as being an author, Shelley was a radical political activist who advocated non-violent protest. Having begun study at Oxford in 1810, it is often said that he only attended one lecture during his time there. He published several works whilst at university, but it was his atheistic pamphlet which led to his appearance before the College fellows and his eventual expulsion as he refused to deny authorship. ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ argued that people do not choose their beliefs and thus atheists shouldn’t be persecuted. However it is unclear whether Shelley was personally an atheist; he may have instead been an agnostic or a pantheist. Either way, this document is an interesting insight into Shelley’s views and shows how atheism was stigmatised in the early nineteenth century. Atheism is far more commonplace now, at least in England, and no-one is going to be expelled from university for expressing their beliefs. Of course in some more strictly religious countries, atheism is still considered blasphemy. Perhaps the ignorant and discriminatory treatment Shelley suffered is not as far withdrawn from modern times as we may like to think.



‘The Necessity of Atheism’ 1811 edition


“Truth has always been found to promote the best interests of mankind. Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity”

March 20th 1852: ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ published

I just noticed that the schedule function didn’t work yesterday so failed to post what I had set for the 20th. Sorry it’s late but here it is anyway!



Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896)


On this day in 1852, American author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was published. Previously published as a serial in the anti-slavery periodical the National Era, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ tells the story of a black slave and recounts the harsh reality of his enslavement. Stowe was an ardent advocate of the abolition of slavery, and wrote the novel in response to the passage of the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which was part of the Compromise of 1850. The Act ordered Northern citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves from the South, thus forcing the generally anti-slavery North to become complicit in the continuance of the ‘peculiar institution’. Northerners resented the influence of the Southern ‘Slave Power’, especially their continued victories in Congress. The Fugitive Slave Act was seen as just another example of the South trying to spread slavery, which many Northerners saw as a threat to white liberty. Thus the popular discontent over the slavery issue helped make ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and saw its translation into sixty languages.



Original 1852 novel version of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’


The novel helped keep the flames of anti-slavery sentiment alive, and is therefore sometimes attributed with helping start the American Civil War. The war had no singular cause, and whilst the debate over slavery is often considered a primary reason, a variety of economic and political factors were at play as well. For example, some see the war as a battle between an emerging industrial, capitalist North and a rural South. However, at least in my opinion, all of these other concerns came down to the primary division between Northern and Southern society – slavery. Thus ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, with its critique of slavery, helped fan these tensions which eventually resulted in the bloodiest war in American history. However, whilst still hailed as a great anti-slavery work of its day, the novel falls short of modern expectations with its stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans.


“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
– what, according to legend, Abraham Lincoln said upon meeting Stowe in 1862

March 18th 1893: Wilfred Owen born


Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)


On this day in 1893, the English poet and soldier was born in Shropshire. Owen is famous for his poetry depicting his experiences in the First World War, especially the horrors of trench and gas warfare which he experienced first hand. His grim portrayal of war was contrary to the optimistic public perception of war. Owen was good friends with fellow World War One poet Siegfried Sassoon whom he met whilst they were both in hospital for shell shock. Perhaps Owen’s most famous poem is ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. In the last lines of this poem Owen laments the “old lie” of the dictum “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which is Latin for ‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country’. Owen was killed in battle in 1918 aged 25 exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice. He was outlived by his friend Sassoon who died in 1967.



An early draft of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’


This year when we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, we must remember Owen’s haunting words and understand the horrors these soldiers experienced. This centenary celebration is in danger of succumbing to the increasing trend to mythologise Britain’s role in the so-called ‘Great War’. Documentaries and commemorations have tended to feature the war as something heroic and noble. This could not be further from the truth – the First World War was a pointless war, it did not have the moral fervor and mission of the Second World War against the Nazis. Men like Owen died due to a mishandling of a diplomatic crisis, and his poetry serves as a reminder of the tragic futility of the fighting.

January 29th 1845: ‘The Raven’ published


Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)


On this day in 1845, the poem ‘The Raven’ by American writer Edgar Allan Poe was published in the New York Evening Mirror. The poem made Poe famous and established him as a popular writer. ‘The Raven’ remains one of his best known works today. It tells the story of a raven who comes to a man who has recently lost his beloved. The raven perches on a bust of Pallas and distresses the man by repeating the word “Nevermore”. Despite being a poetry philistine, I personally think this is a wonderful poem. Its chilling tone and musicality make it an exemplary work by Poe.


edgar raven

Gustave Doré’s interpretation of the poem’s final lines


“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted – nevermore!”

(read the full poem here)

January 27th 1832: Lewis Carroll born


Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 – 1898)


On this day in 1832, the English writer Lewis Carroll was born. His birth name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson  but he took Lewis Carroll as his pseudonym. Carroll studied at Rugby School and Oxford University. He is most famous as the author of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865) and its sequel ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (1871). Carroll’s writing is an example of literary nonsense, and displays his aptitude with word play and logic. His works are still widely enjoyed today by adults and children alike.



Title page of the original ‘Alice in Wonderland’

January 11th 1928: Thomas Hardy dies


Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)


On this day in 1928, the British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy died aged 87. Hardy is best known for his novels ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’ and his poems ‘Convergence of the Twain’, ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and ‘Under the Waterfall’. His novels were mostly set in the fictional region of Wessex.



His first wife Emma


Hardy and his first wife Emma had an unhappy marriage, as they later rarely talked. However, upon her death in 1912 Hardy was filled with remorse for his treatment of her and wrote many poems about her. When Hardy died in 1928, despite his wishes to be buried next to Emma, the executor of his will wanted him placed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. As a compromise, Hardy’s ashes were placed in Poets’ Corner, and his heart was buried with Emma.



Hardy’s grave

December 30th 1865: Rudyard Kipling born



On this day in 1865, the English writer Rudyard Kipling was born. Kipling was born in Bombay and in later life wrote frequently about British soldiers in India. However he is best known for his book for children ‘The Jungle Book’. ‘The Jungle Book’ is a collection of short stories and was published in 1894.The book inspired the 1967 Disney film. Kipling was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. Kipling died in 1936 aged 70.




The Jungle Book remains a very popular story, mostly due to the Disney film adaptation. However Kipling’s literary prowess is still respected and he is considered one of Britain’s finest writers.