Over the last few years I’ve been writing the “Literary Birthday” blurbs that appear Monday through Friday on the LitStack sidebar; just a tiny life synopsis about a writer whose birthday occurs on that particular day of the year. It’s been fun researching not only famous authors, poets, playwrights and journalists, but also writers that I didn’t know much about – even a few of which I had no knowledge at all before finding out they were born on some random day in September.
But what really amazes me is how many of these writers really lived absolutely fantastical lives. Sometimes scandalous, sometimes tragic, sometimes quietly pushing the boundaries of propriety, sometimes excelling in things other than writing. Many of the lives I glanced over in my research were highly dramatic, and more than once I thought that the lives of these people would make a fantastic story in its own right.
For instance, we may all know a bit about Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein), how she and her eventual husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were mighty darned bohemian in their outlook and lifestyle, and how there was some sort of weird, possibly very kinky relationship with them, Lord Byron, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister. Or that Oliver Wendall Holmes was a skilled physician, dedicated medical reformer, and lecturer (he championed the use of the stethoscope, coined the phrase “anesthesia”, and was a major proponent of the germ theory of disease).
And no doubt many know about the seemingly tortured mind of Howard (H.P.) Lovecraft, but I was a novice; I had known him only in reference to strange and horrifying fantastical creatures labeled “Lovecraftian”. I was amazed – and touched – to read about the bizarre early aspects of his life: his father having a “psychotic episode” while on a business trip and being institutionalized for the rest of his life (Howard was three when this happened), and his grandfather raising him on not just the classics, but also on stirring tales of gothic horror. Young Howard was a child prodigy, writing poems by age six, but the boy was also quite sickly, and did not really attend public school until high school. By then, he had already produced several publications with a limited circulation, beginning in 1899 (when he was nine) with The Scientific Gazette.
Howard also suffered from horrific night terrors and nightmares from an early age, and with the loss of his beloved grandfather when he was 14, coupled with an uncanny struggle with his studies, he had a nervous breakdown (the same thing he had been told had afflicted his father) and never finished high school. He became a hermit, seeing almost no one beyond his mother – but it was during this time that he moved from poetry to writing fiction. In 1914, after penning a letter to a literary magazine complaining about the quality of its stories, he caught the eye of Edward F. Daas, president of the United Amateur Press Association, who invited the young writer to join the organization. It was at this point that Howard began to interact with others, and when his works of fiction began to be published and recognized.
However, five years later, his mother, who had apparently suffered from “hysteria” and depression for years, was committed to the same institution as his father had been years earlier. She also remained there for the rest of her life. Is it any wonder that the Cthulhu Mythos came from this boy’s mind?
And then there is the story of Sara Teasdale. Born in 1884 and a famous lyrical poet in her day, she was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Like H.P. Lovecraft, she was not able to attend school until her teens, due to poor health. But she did not have as unsettled of a life as he had, and she achieved acclaim early; her first published poem and her first collection of poems were both released when she was 23, her second collection, four years later.
Sara had lots of suitors as a young woman in St. Louis, the most ardent of which was fellow poet Vachel Lindsay (well known in his own right), who loved her desperately but didn’t feel he could marry her due to his being unable to support her financially through his writing. Instead, in 1914 she married a rich businessman, Ernst Filsinger, who had been an admirer of her poetry and a staunch supporter. The next year, her third book of poems was published and was a best seller, and shortly thereafter the newlyweds moved from St. Louis to New York, living in an apartment on Central Park West. In 1917 Sara wrote Love Songs, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1918.
Yet amongst all this success, there was great sadness in Sara’s life, and loneliness. Ernst was gone often and for long stretches due to his business dealings, and Sara’s continued fragile health must have no doubt kept her at home, where she could only gaze out of her window at life passing her by. Finally, after 10 years of pining away, she “moved interstate” for three months so as to fulfill the requirements for a divorce, which she pursued without her husband’s knowledge. It was only due to the insistence of her lawyers that she informed Ernst that she was being granted a divorce; the poor man was “shocked and surprised.”
We can only surmise what was going through Sara’s mind, what beyond loneliness and isolation caused her to take such a drastic move. Was Ernst abusive as well as distant? There is no indication so. Some biographies say that her health failed even more after her divorce, leaving her a semi-invalid. Perhaps she did not want to saddle him with a weakened wife? We do know that after her divorce (she still remained in New York) she rekindled her friendship with Vachel Lindsay, who was now married with children of his own, but in far away Illinois. Did an idea of the romance that had once existed between them also revive? Did Vachel, apparently a man of integrity as well as passion, feel torn between duty and love? Did he rebuff her, or gently let her know that he would be forever unavailable? Or were the two perhaps merely content to wonder what might have been if circumstances had been different?
To be honest, I didn’t dig all that deeply into Sara’s life; I wanted there to be some kind of floating detachment to daydream with. What I did learn was that in 1931, two years after her divorce, Vachel Lindsay took his own life. His biographers claim it was paranoia and mounting financial pressures that led him to drinking a bottle of lye, but who is to say that there wasn’t some lament of what had been lost and what opportunities had slipped away that added to his mental state? (At least our modern screenplay could suggest such a thing.)
Then, in 1933, at the age of 48, after a bout of pneumonia left her even weaker, Sara Teasdale took an overdose of sleeping pills that ended her own life. She had continued publishing poems until 1931, and an additional volume was released after her death; could it have been that her emotions were stronger than her body, and she ended up overwhelmed by all she felt but could no longer experience? Ah, now that would be a fine question to pursue. Maybe director Joe Wright would be interested in optioning Sara’s story? He could certainly employ Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson again, to great satisfaction for another period romance flick, don’t you think?
It, like so many others, would make a great story. There are so many wonderful stories out there, outside the pages of our fictions and our essays and our poems, if we only look for them.
~ Sharon Browning