Category Archives: happy birthday

May the Fourteenth Be With You…

Happy Birthday to George Lucas, who turns 73 years old today.  We raise our cups of blue milk to you, sir.

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Thank the Maker! (Or at Least Wish Him Happy Birthday!)

George-Lucas-Star-Wars-Happy Birthday to George Lucas, who turns 71 years old today. The Force is strong with this one.

Happy Birthday, John Lennon

You’re still missed. Perhaps more than ever.

Happy Birthday, Jim Henson!

Seventy-four years ago, the world became a sillier, brighter, and better place.

“My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.” — Jim Henson

Happy Birthday, Jim Henson.

Happy Birthday, Washington Irving!

Happy 226th!

Happy 226th!

On the evening of April 3, 1783 — the same week New Yorkers learned of the British ceasefire that effectively ended the American Revolution — Washington Irving was born on William Street in Manhattan.  (If you’re interested in seeing where he was born . . . well, sorry.  There’s a Duane Reade pharmacy on the site today.  Go enjoy Sunnyside instead.)  Today marks his 226th birthday.

Irving was a not a great celebrater of his birthday — or, at least, he doesn’t indicate as much in his personal letters and journals.  Nonetheless, there were times in his life when important events seemed to fortuitously fall on April 3. 

For example, it was on April 3, 1830 — Irving’s 47th birthday — that Irving learned that the Royal Society of Literature, citing his work on The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus and Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada, had chosen to award him one of its Gold Medals for “Literary works of eminent merit, or of important Literary Discoveries.”

Three years later, on April 3, 1833, the 50-year-old Irving learned, to his great amusement, that he had been awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Harvard.  Irving — who could probably fairly vie for the title of New York’s worst attorney ever — was delighted at the irony. “To merit such rewards from my country is the dearest object of my ambition,” Irving wrote to Harvard president Josiah Quincy, “but, conscious as I am of my imperfections, I cannot but feel that my Countrymen are continually overpaying me.”

In 1845, while serving as U.S. Minister to Spain — an appointment cheerily and astutely conveyed upon him by President John Tyler — Irving made a special note of his 62nd birthday.  “I reccollect the time when I did not wish to live to such an age,” he wrote reflectively, “thinking it must be attended with infirmity, apathy of feeling; peevishness of temper, and all the other ills which conspire to ‘render age unlovely.’ ”

Yet, as he wrote to his sister Sarah that same afternoon, with the warm April sunshine streaming into his Spanish salon, he was feeling good, even optimistic:

“Here my Sixty second birthday finds me in fine health; in the full enjoyment of all my faculties; with sensibilities still fresh, and in such buxom activity, that, on my return home yesterday from the Prado, I caught myself bounding up stairs, three steps at a time, to the astonishment of the porter; and checked myself, reccollecting that it was not the pace befitting a Minister and a man of my years.”

The last birthday Irving would celebrate — his 76th, on April 3, 1859 — was a gray, rainy Sunday. As greetings and bouquets arrived at Sunnyside—“beautiful flowers to a withered old man!” he said—Washington and his nephew Pierre Munroe Irving sorted through a number of unpublished manuscripts, mostly Spanish tales, still lying at the bottom of a desk drawer. Washington let them be; he was done writing. “Henceforth,” he vowed, “I give up all further tasking of the pen.”

He was as good as his word, content to live out his remaining days at Sunnyside in the company of friends and family — but always taking to heart his own words of wisdom: “Whenever a man’s friends begin to compliment him about looking young, he may be sure that they think he is growing old.”

Celebrating a Dark Genius

poeJanuary 19, 2009, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s most celebrated authors, poets, essayists, and editors.  I’m lucky enough to be in Richmond, Virginia, today — which, along with Baltimore, serves as Poe Central — and while I’m here for my daughter’s volleyball tournament, I’m hoping our schedule will allow a bit of time for us to catch some of the Poe celebration and a trip to the Poe Museum.  (And if you happen to be in the area and are looking for things to do, the State of Virginia has a special website commemorating all things Poe.  Or, at least, All Things Poe in Virginia.)

While I’m not what you’d call a Poe Scholar, I’m a huge Poe Fan.   His short story “The Black Cat” was the first Poe story I ever read — I think I was 12 — and it scared the daylights out of me.  With its unstable narrator — who gouges out the cat’s eye with a pen-knife, then later hangs it from a tree — images of a hanged cat etched into the plaster in the remains of the narrator’s burnt house, and the narrator suddenly burying an axe in his wife’s skull,  there’s enough going on to keep you huddled under the covers for weeks.  But then add to that Poe’s  punchline, the last line of the story — “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!” — and . . . well, it’s a moment in American literature that leaves you feeling deliciously cold, as if you’ve just swallowed an entire Slurpee in one gulp.  The brain freeze is totally worth it.

One of the great thrills of Washington Irving was writing those moments when the ambitious and somewhat crafty Edgar Allan Poe entered Irving’s story.  Sure it’s non-fiction — but just as fiction writers love to play with great characters, so, too, do we Nonfictionalists.  And really, you’d be hard pressed to find a more compelling real-life character to write than Poe.

Irving had actually met Poe in London in 1819, when the ten-year-old Poe was travelling in Europe with his foster father, John Allan, and Irving — basking in the early glow of the success of The Sketch Book but hungry for the company of fellow Americans — dined with Allan and his ward at the York Chop House. 

Poe remained an admirer of Irving’s writings — at least for a while — and as a writer for the Southern Literary Messenger, inked one of the many glowing reviews of Irving’s 1835 work, The Crayon Miscellany.  As an up-and-coming new writer, Poe was also shrewd enough to recognize that Irving’s endorsement of his work would give him credibility with editors and reviewers, many of whom were baffled by Poe’s markedly dark voice and tone.

In October 1839, Poe — behind flattering cover letters — sent Irving copies of two of his latest stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson,” hoping for a kind word — a usable “cover blurb,” to put it in today’s terms.  Though the tone and content of both stories wasn’t really Irving’s cup of tea, he nonetheless read both tales, and wrote Poe with his comments.

Of the two stories, Irving preferred “William Wilson.” “It is managed in a highly picturesque Style and the Singular and Mysterious interest is well sustained throughout,” he told Poe. “Usher,” however, he thought was a bit of a mess.  It might be improved, he told Poe, “by relieving the style from some of the epithets.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was enough for the shrewd Poe. “I am sure you will be pleased to hear that Washington Irving has addressed me 2 letters, abounding in high passages of compliment in regard to my Tales—passages which he desires me to make public—if I think benefit may be derived,” Poe wrote to one colleague. “Irving’s name,” he continued, in tones suitable for a Marvel Comics Super Villain, “will afford me a complete triumph over those little critics who would endeavor to put me down by raising hue and cry of exaggeration in style, of Germanism & such twaddle.”

Clearly Poe was not above publicly exploiting Irving’s reputation to further his own career.  Privately, though, Poe considered Irving “overrated” and argued that much of his reputation was based solely on the fact that Irving was the first American writer to earn international fame and praise.  “A nice distinction might be drawn,” Poe wrote, “between [Irving’s] just and surreptitious and adventitious reputation—between what is due to the pioneer solely, and what to the writer.”

Take a moment today to celebrate the life of America’s first, and still favorite, dark and crafty genius.  Despite everything, Washington Irving wouldn’t mind a bit.