This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,480) on Friday, January 1, 2021.
Happy new year.
During this time of year, we often hear the word “resolutions,” and we may be encouraged to “make resolutions.” Possibly like many of you, I have found that making resolutions is frustrating and ultimately unproductive. It may be simply a semantic change, but it is more productive for me to consider “setting goals.”
Sometimes, even after a full year, I might even remember some of the goals that I set. At the beginning of 2020, I set for myself the goal of trying to improve my skill at a caricature. I may or may not have accomplished that goal, but I do think that I made some progress.
What about 2021? I do not feel compelled to set all my goals on New Year’s Day. I usually give myself most of January to work these things out. One of the goals that I am formulating at present is to become more familiar with the work of Charles Dickens. Probably no other author with the exception of William Shakespeare is held in higher esteem as a writer than Dickens. And yet I feel like I have read relatively little of his work. You will be hearing more about this goal in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, whatever your resolutions are goals I wish you the very happiest of the New Year. Have a great weekend.
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Aphra Behn: a marginalized voice restored
She is thought to have been the first woman to make her living purely by writing. But that one fact — whether or not it is actually true — does not do justice to the person or to the work of Aphra Behn.
Behn lived from 1640 to 1689, a time known as the Restoration in English history because it was then that Charles II was returned to the throne after the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell’s reign had been an oppressive one that included the closing of all theaters. Behn made much of her living by writing popular plays, which were often bawdy and risque. In addition to being a playwright, Behn was also a poet and essayist who had a distinct voice and point of view.
We know relatively little about Aphra Behn’s origins and family. We do know that in 1663, she accompanied the family of the governor-general to Surinam and the time that she spent there became an important part of her later writing experience. Shortly after her return to England In 1664, she married Johan Behn, but the marriage did not last long, either because they separated or because her husband died. From that point on, she often referred to herself as “Mrs. Behn.” She also used the name “Astrea” to identify herself as the author of her writings.
Behn’s connections with the court of Charles II got her an assignment to go to Holland as a spy and to gather information about possible threats to Charles II’s reign. When she wrote to the King to ask that her expenses be covered, she received no reply and no money. Consequently, she had to borrow money for the return voyage. Sometime after she returned to England, she had to spend a short time in debtors’ prison because she still lacked the funds to pay for the voyage. All of this happened between 1665 and 1670.
It was at that point, apparently, that been decided she had to make her own way in the world. She chose to do that by writing. Her first play The Forc’d Marriage was produced in 1670, and for the next two decades, she was one of London’s foremost playwrights. She had 19 plays produced, more than any of her contemporaries during that time.
Behn did not confine herself to writing for the theater. She published two volumes of poetry 1 and 1684 and the other in 1688. Behn had a well-developed poetic voice and a distinctive style. She wrote in both short verses and long narratives, and her poetry exhibited her intelligence and her knowledge of literature. Her poetry was well received by her contemporaries. Here is part of what is said about her on the Poetry Foundation website:
Behn’s contemporary reputation as a poet was no less stunning than her notoriety as a dramatist. She was heralded as a successor to Sappho, inheriting the great gifts of the Greek poet in the best English tradition exemplified by Behn’s immediate predecessor, Katherine Philips. Just as Philips was known by her pastoral nom de plume and praised as “The Matchless Orinda,” so Behn was apostrophized as “The Incomparable Astrea,” an appellation based on the code name she had used when she was Charles’s spy. (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/aphra-behn)
Aphra Behn was also a novelist. Her most lasting work was Oroonoko, a novel about an African prince who was tricked into becoming a slave for European colonists. It is the first novel to treat Africans in a sympathetic light. In the book, the protagonist insists that the oath to a King must be respected. That idea had serious political implications in 1688, the year the book was published, because James II was on the throne, and there was a faction in England that was seeking to replace him with a non-Catholic monarch. Behn was a supporter of the Stuart line of succession and was likely a Catholic.
The novel was popular at the time of its publication and became even more so when it was produced as a stage play.
Aphra Behn died in 1689, a year after her most famous novel was published. She was 49 years old.
After her death, her life and her work were marginalized due in part to the changing political climate in England — Mary II and her Dutch husband William of Orange, both Protestants, secured the throne in 1688 — and also because she was a woman. Behn’s work came to be considered lewd and scandalous, and she was dismissed as a writer of no consequence.
Interest in her work revived in the early 20th century, particularly when author Virginia Woolf praised her as the first woman who made her living purely from her writing. Her poems are now regularly read, and her plays are occasionally produced.
In addition to the detailed assessment of Behn’s poetry on the Poetry Foundation website cited above, LibriVox.org has a number of her poems that you can listen to or download. The BBC’s Radio 4 In Our Time interview show has an excellent program on Aphra Behn that is well worth listening to.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Strange goings-on in the world of journalism
Some interesting stories have emerged from the world of journalism in the past few weeks that give us a variety of insights into that profession.
The New York Times has renounced its much-ballyhooed podcast series Caliphate. The central character of that series was a Canadian who claimed to be an ISIS fight and described in gruesome detail the killings that he had done.
The Times started its review of “Caliphate” after Canadian authorities arrested Mr. Chaudhry on Sept. 25 and charged him with perpetrating a terrorist hoax. In an Editors’ Note on Friday, The Times said its investigation had “found a history of misrepresentations by Mr. Chaudhry and no corroboration that he committed the atrocities he described in the ‘Caliphate’ podcast. As a result, The Times has concluded that the episodes of ‘Caliphate’ that presented Mr. Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards for accuracy.”
The Editors’ Note described two main problems: The Times’s failure to assign an editor well versed in terrorism to keep a close watch on the series; and the “Caliphate” team’s lack of skepticism and rigor in its reporting on Mr. Chaudhry. Source: New York Times Says ‘Caliphate’ Podcast Fell Short of Standards – The New York Times
After a bedrock of honesty, the most valuable characteristic that a journalist can develop is a healthy skepticism.
But skepticism seems far removed from the next story: the one about Martin Shkreli, who made headlines many months ago for the unregenerated defense of his own behavior in running up the price of a life-saving drug. Shkreli ended up in jail, convicted of fraud.
This story isn’t about Shkreli, however. It’s about Christie Smythe, the reporter for Bloomberg News who covered his arrest and conviction. Turns out, she’s in love — with Shkreli.
That was revealed recently by the New York Times, which obtained a letter that Smythe had written in April to a federal judge supporting Shkreli’s application for release.
“I started to fall for him, I think, after he got thrown in prison,” Ms. Smythe said in an interview with The Times, referring to when Mr. Shkreli’s bail was revoked and he was jailed in September 2017. “I definitely felt emotionally compromised then, but I didn’t quite know what to do about that.” Ms. Smythe left Bloomberg News in 2018 and got divorced from her husband the next year.
Finally, there is the Kansas City Star, which issued an apology for its failure to cover the Black community and race relations properly — or at all — for many decades during the 20th century.
What the Star admits to is what happened at newspapers large and small throughout the South — and elsewhere — especially during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. One egregious instance: In 1963 in Birmingham, when civil rights demonstrations were making national and international headlines, the Birmingham News confined its coverage to small stories on the back page of the paper.
The Kansas City Star is not the only newspaper that needs to own up to its history.
Vietnam Voices: the podcast this week
Bill Beaty flew A-7 Corsairs for the U.S. Navy in Vietnam because “I always wanted to fly low and fast.” In this episode, he recounts a typical day of duty, if there was such a thing.
Marine Capt. Jerry Cunningham, a lawyer with the JAG corps, tells about the time with famed lawyer F. Lee Bailey came to Vietnam to defend a Marine accused of a war crime.
A few more posts from 2020
Agatha Christie’s reputation, as well as the body of work, as a mystery writer so overwhelms anyone who takes a look at her life that it’s easy to miss the fact that she wrote six novels — none of them mysteries — under the pen name of Mary Westmacott.
Like many other novelists, Christie found that writing in one genré, particularly one as rule-bound as mysteries, was too restrictive for her fertile imagination. She wanted to explore people and relations in other venues and settings even though she was well on her way to making a name for herself in the mystery and detective corner.
Theodore Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké were tired of the spin — although they didn’t use that term back in 1838.
They were tired of people saying that black was white, up was down, and night was day. And they were tired of people believing the spin because that’s what they wanted to believe.
Richard Ben Cramer, an extraordinary reporter, could pack enough energy into a paragraph to charge a lightning bolt.
To read Cramer is to get caught up in his rhythm, to follow is thinking, and to come to his understanding of the subject he was reporting on. Cramer brought all of his writing and reporting talent to bear on his classic tome What It Takes: The Way to the White House.
Mary Mapes Dodge, suffering from the disappearance and then death of her husband in 1857 and facing the need to support herself and her two sons, wrote one of the most beloved children’s novels of all time — Hans Brinkler or The Silver Skates. For that, she will always be remembered.
But what she did beyond the publication of that novel affected children and their reading habits in a far different and more profound way.
The last time anyone saw mystery writer Jacques Futrelle, he was standing next to John Jacob Astor smoking a cigarette while Astor puffed on a cigar. It was April 15, 1912, and the two were on the deck of the Titanic.
Futrelle was 37 years old and well on his way to becoming one of the giants of mystery fiction on this side of the Atlantic.
Ed H.: At the top of this newsletter, you write about the “cuteness” of babies. It is worth noting that it seems to be a universal mammalian characteristic to find the newborn of all mammals “cute.”
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Playing the cello
Best quote of the week:
Helping those in need
Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Dickens manipulates, we review, and readers react: Merry Christmas: newsletter, December 25, 2020
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