Victor Hugo, 1802

Victor Hugo

On February 26, 1802, French Romantic novelist, poet, and dramatist Victor Hugo was born in Besançon, France. Outside of France, Hugo is best known for his novels such as Notre-Dame de Paris ( or The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English) and Les Misérables. In fact, the latter was made into a highly successful musical and then adapted into a 2012 film. However, in France, Hugo is better known for his poetic works.

Victor Hugo circa 1853-1855, via. I can just picture the photographer saying, “Quick! Act natural!” And then Hugo strikes this pose.

Influenced by the French Revolution of 1789, Hugo’s works are dominated by social and political themes (you know, like Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité). In addition, Hugo’s father was a general in Napoleon’s army. Thus, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Hugo never supported the French monarchy. Instead, he became an advocate for republicanism.

In 1830, the July Revolution broke out in France and a constitutional monarchy was consequently put in place. Hugo would have preferred a republic, but was nonetheless inspired by the themes of equality and freedom that powered the two revolutions. Thus, in 1831, he published The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of his first works that included the social and political themes for which Hugo became known.

Hugo had now made a name for himself in the literary world, and in 1841 was elected to the Académie française or French Academy, a prestigious group that serves as the authority on the French language. Additionally, he began working on Les Misérables, a novel which took about 17 years to write and publish. It makes sense that it took so long considering it consists of five volumes and is one of the longest novels ever written. Ever.

Les Mis was finally published in 1862. The shortest correspondence in history supposedly occurred between Hugo and his publisher. Hugo sent a telegram with only a “?” to ask how well Les Mis was doing, as he was on vacation when it was published. His publisher sent back a “!” to signify that it was a sensation.

Does this look familiar? French illustrator Émile Bayard drew this for the original edition of Les Miserables, and it is used to promote the musical today, via.

In 1851, Hugo fled to Brussels after a coup in France, because he strongly opposed the new monarch, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. He also lived in Britain for awhile in his exile. However, he triumphantly returned in 1870, when a republic was established.

Hugo died in Paris on May 22, 1885, and was buried in the Panthéon as a national hero who exposed the flaws of society and helped create a republic in France.

“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Simone de Beauvoir, 1908

On this day in 1908, Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir- or Simone de Beauvoir as she was later known- was born in Paris, France. De Beauvoir was a writer, feminist, intellectual, political activist, and existentialist philosopher, best known for her feminist text, Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), which was about the oppression of women throughout history.

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was raised Catholic but later became an atheist and existentialist. At 21 years old, de Beauvoir went to the Sorbonne to study philosophy. In 1929, she graduated from the Sorbonne and met French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she had a lifelong relationship. The two never married because de Beauvoir did not agree with the social institution of marriage.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, 1963

Influenced by World War II, de Beauvoir became interested in the social and political issues of her age. Along with Sartre and a few of their contemporaries, she founded and edited Les Temps Modernes, a left-wing political journal, in 1945. In 1946, she published The Ethics of Ambiguity (Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté), an essay about existential ethics.

In 1949, she published The Second Sex in France, a feminist treatise so controversial it was banned by the Vatican. One of her most famous quotes from the work is:

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

The unabridged English translation of Le Deuxieme Sexe by Simone de Beauvoir.

De Beauvoir died in April 14, 1986 in Paris and shares a grave with partner Jean-Paul Sartre, who died six years before.

Simone de Beauvoir

 

A Visit From St. Nicholas, 1823

Author Note: Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Things got really busy at the end of the semester, but I am finally back and ready to write about history again!

‘Twas the day before the night before Christmas in 1823 that the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in a New York newspaper. Today, the poem- which also goes by the names “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and “The Night Before Christmas”- is attributed to American poet Clement Clarke Moore who is said to have written the poem for his children. Its opening lines are some of the most recognizable lines in American poetry:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there…
Moore published the beloved children’s poem anonymously because he did not want to be associated with it. You see, Moore was very scholarly and did not want the poem to tarnish his reputation. The poem grew in popularity and in 1844, Moore included “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in his Poems, thus taking credit for the poem. However, not everyone believes that Moore wrote the poem. Others, namely Major Henry Livingston, Jr., have been credited with writing the poem.

Early depiction of Saint Nicholas.

Regardless of who wrote the poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” has largely influenced the popular image of Santa Claus and established the names and number of his reindeer.
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

College Board’s First Standardized Test, 1901

On this date in 1901, 973 college-bound high school students sharpened their pencils for the first ever standardized test administered by the College Board. This precursor to the SAT featured tests in history, English, German, Latin, French, Greek, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Exams were then read by experts in the subject and rated as Excellent, Good, Doubtful, Poor, or Very Poor (ouch!).

That makes today’s test seem like a breeze!

College Board: Vexing students since 1901.

Further Reading:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/sats/where/1901.html

Harriet Beecher Stowe is Born, 1811

Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.

-Harriet Beecher Stowe

Abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe was born today in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her Presbyterian family was committed to social justice and helped shape her views.

Stowe began publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1951 soon after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1950, which made it illegal to aid a runaway slave.

 

Stowe is, of course, best known for  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a groundbreaking novel that exposed the horrors of Southern slavery to Northern readers with the hopes of instilling change. The book definitely set the wheels in motion for abolition. Some even say that Stowe is responsible for the Civil War. In fact, when Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln for the first time, he supposedly said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”

While it’s impossible to verify whether Lincoln truly believed Stowe singlehandedly started the Civil War, it is safe to say Stowe revealed the truth behind a social crime and caused many unenlightened or indifferent people to finally talk about it and make a change.

Further Reading:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/uncletom/context.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2958.html

http://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/utc/

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/stowe.html

http://www.biography.com/people/harriet-beecher-stowe-9496479

Chinua Achebe dies, 2013

Though I normally write out about past historical events on the day they occur, today I am writing about something that happened today that I feel is historically relevant.

Today, influential Nigerian author Chinua Achebe died in Boston at age 82.

Photo courtesy of saharareporters.com.

Achebe is best known for his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart as well as his 1975 article  “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”  which criticizes Joseph Conrad’s famous novella Heart of Darkness for its racism. Achebe is recognized as the “Father of African Literature” and has influenced such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison.

Like many others, Achebe has influenced me too. I read Things Fall Apart last year and found it to be an stunning and heartbreaking depiction of an Igbo man’s struggle to maintain his cultural identity in the face of European colonialism. It is truly a modern masterpiece that should be read by all, as its message is still very relevant.

And now, some words of wisdom:

Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am – and what I need – is something I have to find out myself.
― Chinua Achebe

Articles for further reading:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/mar/22/novelist-chinua-achebe-dies

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130322/us-obit-achebe/?utm_hp_ref=homepage&ir=homepage

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/03/22/175025166/chinua-achebe-nigerian-author-of-things-fall-apart-dies

Ovid, 43 BCE

Photo courtesy of notablebiographis.com.

I am the poet of the poor, because I was poor when I loved; since I could not give gifts, I gave words. –Ovid

On this day in 43 BCE (Before Common Era), Ovid was born in Sulmo (now Sulmona) in Italy to a wealthy family. After working in the legal field for a brief time, he became a poet. Some of his early works include the Amores (Loves) and Heroides (Heroines).

Around 8 CE, Ovid was banished to Tomis -which is part of modern day Romania- for unknown reasons. Ovid wrote that the reason for his exile was “a poem and a mistake.”

Ovid’s most famous masterpiece is Metamorphoses, which is a single narrative poem of 15 books written in dactylic hexameter. It references over 250 different myths, which are connected by their common theme of transformation, or metamorphosis. One of the stories, Pyramus and Thisbe, shares a similar plot to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Thisbe, by John William Waterhouse, 1909. Photo courtesy of en.wikipedia.org.

Despite attempts to return to Rome, Ovid died in Tomis at around 60 years of age.

All things change; nothing perishes. ― Ovid

References:

http://www.biography.com/people/ovid-9430940

http://www.notablebiographies.com/Ni-Pe/Ovid.html

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/metamorphoses/context.html

http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1127.Ovid (I found the above quotations from this website, but there are so many other good ones. Click on this link to read them all.)