Saturday, December 7, 2019

Bytes & Pieces: Literature

When Poe was writing his 1845 poem The Raven, he said he first considered another talking bird, the parrot. Some sources say he also tried out an owl before settling on the raven. In "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe wrote that the raven, as “the bird of ill-omen,” was “infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.”

Although The Raven was an instant hit and made Poe a celebrity, it made him little money in that there were no copyright laws or royalties for reprinting his work. At the time his wife Virginia was dying and the impoverished Poe and his family were living in sad circumstances.  In 1846, a friend wrote about their pitiful circumstances: “[Virginia] lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband's great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat on her bosom. … The coat and the cat were the sufferer's only means of warmth.” She died in January 1847. Poe followed two years later.

Isaac Asimov is best known for writing science fiction novels like the Foundation and Robot series, but the amazingly prolific author also penned hundreds of mysteries, short stories, science guides, essays, and even a book of humor. And, of course, he consulted on Star Trek (though only after giving the show a second look).

In 1966, Asimov wrote a critique for TV Guide arguing that the then-current crop of sci-fi shows—including Star Trek—were inaccurate in their depiction of science fiction. Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator, wrote a letter to Asimov defending himself. After admitting that he was a big fan of the author's work, Roddenberry explained that the show hired multiple scientific consultants to ensure accuracy and struggled to produce a new show every week. Roddenberry ended his letter by stating his belief that Star Trek would turn new people—who would purchase Asimov's books—into science fiction fans.

The two men then became friends, and Asimov became a fan of the show. He served as a consultant for Star Trek, giving Roddenberry a few plot and characterization suggestions. For his part, Roddenberry attempted to make a movie based on Asimov's I, Robot, but it never happened under him (both Roddenberry and Asimov had died a decade before the 2004 Will Smith film was in the works).

Gene Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov

In December 1983 Asimov had a triple bypass surgery, during which he received a blood transfusion. Unbeknownst to doctors, the blood they gave him was infected with HIV. Asimov contracted the virus, and it developed fully into AIDS. He died of heart and kidney failure, caused by AIDS, on April 6, 1992.

The first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in 964, was racist as regards the Oompa-Loompas.  Also, Charlie was originally described by Dahl as "a small negro boy."

When Charlie and the four other golden ticket holders and their parents first spied the Oompa-Loompas Wonka explained that the workers were not made of chocolate, but they “are real people! They are some of my workers!” He had imported the tiny black people “direct from Africa!” They belonged to “a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies known as Oompa-Loompas. I discovered them myself,” Wonka exclaimed. I brought them over from Africa myself—the whole tribe of them, three thousand in all. I found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before.” Wonka informed Charlie and his companions that the tribe had been starving, subsisting on green caterpillars but longed for cacao beans; “oh how they craved them,” he said. He bargained with the tribe and promised that if they agreed to “live in my factory” they could have all the cacao beans they wanted: “I’ll even pay your wages in cacao beans if you wish!” So, the black pygmies traded their freedom for permanent enslavement and all the cacao beans they could eat. After the tribal leader agreed to stop eating green caterpillars and work for “beans,” Wonka “shipped them over here, every man, woman, and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe. It was easy. I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them, and they all got here safely.” Because Britain the slave trade had outlawed the trade in 1807, as Wonka alluded to, he smuggled the slaves into England in packing cases, in conditions that sounded almost as horrific as the Middle Passage. And so that no one would miss the point, Joseph Schindelman’s images of the Oompa-Loompas in the book showed them as animal-skin clad jovial Sambos who just loved their labor.

Oompa-Loompa illustration by Joseph Schindelman, 1964 edition

Even though the book was published in the United States 1964, it wasn’t until 1972 when American writer Eleanor Cameron wrote about the racist attributes of the story.  After much debate between Cameron and Dahl, Dahl’s publisher decided that, “To those growing up in a racially mixed society, the Oompa–Loompas were no longer acceptable as originally written. The following year, to accompany its new sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, a revised edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory appeared, in which the Oompa–Loompas had become dwarfish hippies with long ‘golden–brown hair’ and ‘rosy–white’ skin.”

“I created a group of little fantasy creatures…. I saw them as charming creatures, whereas the white kids in the books were… most unpleasant. It didn’t occur to me that my depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was racist, but it did occur to the NAACP and others…. After listening to the criticisms, I found myself sympathizing with them, which is why I revised the book.”
-        Roald Dahl

 Many people mistakenly think that the Monster in the novel Frankenstein is named Frankenstein, when in fact he's never given a name in the novel. Frankenstein is the name of its creator, his creation being referred to in the book by words such as "creature", "monster", "daemon", "wretch", "abortion", "fiend" and "it". Speaking to Victor Frankenstein, the monster says "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel".

During a telling of Frankenstein, Shelley referred to the creature as "Adam".  Shelley was referring to the first man in the Garden of Eden, as in her epigraph:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

-        John Milton, Paradise Lost (X. 743–45)

Title page of first edition of Frankenstein, Volume I.

Shelley started writing the story when she was 18, and the first edition was published anonymously in London on 1 January 1818, when she was 20. Her name first appeared on the second edition, published in 1823.

Shelley had travelled through Europe in 1815 along the river Rhine in Germany stopping in Gernsheim, 17 kilometres (11 mi) away from Frankenstein Castle, where two centuries before, an alchemist engaged in experiments.  She then journeyed to the region of Geneva, Switzerland, where much of the story takes place. The topic of galvanism (contraction of a muscle stimulated by an electric current) and occult ideas were themes of conversation among her companions, particularly her lover and future husband Percy B. Shelley. Mary, Percy and Lord Byron had a competition to see who could write the best horror story. After thinking for days, Shelley dreamt about a scientist who created life and was horrified by what he had made, inspiring the novel.

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