Aeschylus was born to a noble and wealthy Athenian family in the Greek town of Eleusis. His father was Euphorion, a wealthy man of the upper class. Aeschylus’s education included the writings of Homer. In fact it was Homer who proved most inspiring to Aeschylus when he began to write as a teen. He entered his tragedies into the annual competition in Athens and won his first award as a young adult in 484 B.C.E. Aeschylus’ writings were strongly Athenian and rich with moral authority. He carried home the first place award from the Athens competition thirteen times.

As a young man Aeschylus lived through many exciting events in the history of Athens. Politically the city underwent many constitutional reforms resulting in a democracy. Aeschylus became a soldier and took part in turning back a Persian invasion at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.E.). Nevertheless, Aeschylus’s plays left a bigger mark in Greek history than any of his battle accomplishments.

Because Aeschylus was writing for the Greek theater in its beginning stages, he is credited with having introduced many features that are now considered traditional. Formerly plays were written for only one actor and a chorus. Aeschylus added parts for a second and a third actor as well as rich costumes and dance.

Corresponding with his grand style were his grand ideas. Mighty themes and mighty men crossed his stage. Aeschylus has been described as a great theologian because of his literary focus on the workings of the Greek gods.

Modern scholarship has shown that the first of Aeschylus’s plays was The Persians. It is also the only play on a historical subject that has survived in Greek drama. This play is seen from a Persian point of view. His theme sought to show how a nation could suffer due to its pride. Of his ninety plays only seven are still preserved.

Prometheus Bound is perhaps Aeschylus’ most well-known tragedy because of his depiction of the famous Prometheus, who is chained to a mountain peak and cannot move. He is being punished for defying the authority of the god Zeus by bringing fire to mankind. Zeus is depicted as a bully and Prometheus as a suffering but defiant rebel. Both are guilty of pride. Both must learn through suffering: Zeus to exercise power with mercy and justice, and Prometheus to respect authority.

Aeschylus’ masterpiece is the Oresteia, the only preserved trilogy from Greek drama. The three plays are Agamemnon, The Choephori, and The Eumenides. Though they form separate dramas, they are united in their common theme of justice. King Agamemnon returns to his home after the Trojan War (490–480 B.C.E.) only to be murdered by his scheming wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. The king’s children seek revenge that ultimately leads to their trial by the gods. The theme of evil compounding evil is powerfully written.

Albin Lesky has noted, “Aeschylean tragedy shows faith in a sublime [splendid] and just world order, and is in fact inconceivable without it. Man follows his difficult, often terrible path through guilt and suffering, but it is the path ordained by god which leads to knowledge of his laws. All comes from his will.”

According to legend, Aeschylus was picked up by an eagle who thought he was a turtle. The eagle had been confused by Aeschylus’s bald head. Aeschylus was killed when the eagle realized its mistake and dropped him.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874, the youngest of five children of Daniel and Amelia Stein, her wealthy German-Jewish-American parents. As a child, she lived in Vienna, Austria, and Paris, France, but grew up mainly in Oakland, and San Francisco, California. Living in these different countries, she learned to speak German, French, and English fluently. She also learned music and dance. Her early formal education was spotty, but she was a dedicated reader and had a strong interest in art. When Stein was fourteen her mother died, followed by her father just three years later. With the family splintered, Stein, along with one sister, moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to live with her aunt.

With only a year of high school, Stein managed to be admitted in 1893 to Radcliffe College, in Massachusetts, where she specialized in psychology and became a favourite of psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910). He discovered her great capacity for automatic writing, in which the conscious waking mind is suspended and the unconscious sleeping mind takes over. The emphasis of the primitive mind at the expense of the sophisticated mind was to become an important part in Stein’s theory and is demonstrated in most of her writing.

Stein did not take a degree at Radcliffe or Johns Hopkins University, in Maryland, where she studied medicine for four years. In 1903 she went to Paris, France, and took up residence on the Left Bank with her brother Leo. In 1907 she met Alice B. Toklas (1877–1967), a wealthy young San Franciscan who became her lifelong companion and secretary, running the household, typing manuscripts, and screening visitors. France became their permanent home.

During Stein’s early Paris years she established herself as a champion of the avant-garde painters, or artists that strive for new methods and techniques within their art. With her inherited wealth she supported young artists and knew virtually all of the important painters, including Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), who did a famous portrait of her, Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Juan Gris (1887–1927), Andrée Derain (1880–1954), and Georges Braque (1882–1963). Her brother Leo became a famous art critic, but their relationship, which had been extremely close, fell apart in 1912 because of a disagreement over his marriage.

Stein’s first two books, Three Lives (1909) and Tender Buttons (1915), stirred considerable interest among a limited but sophisticated audience, and her home became an informal meeting place visited by many creative people, including American composer Virgil Thomson (1896–1969), British writers Ford Madox Ford (1873–1939), Lytton Strachey (1880–1932), and Edith Sitwell (1887–1964), and American writers Ezra Pound (1885–1972), Elliot Paul (1891–1958), Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), and Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). It was to Hemingway that Stein characterized the disenchanted expatriate veterans (those living overseas) as a “lost generation.”

A woman with deep black eyes and a supremely self-assured manner, Stein was frequently intimidating, impatient with disagreement, and oftentimes pushed people away. The unique style of her writing appealed primarily to a small audience, but her reputation as a patron of the arts was lifelong.

Stein’s 1934 visit to the United States for the opening of her opera Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson, started an enormously successful university lecture tour. During the German occupation of France, both Stein and Toklas lived briefly in Culoz, France, returning to Paris in 1944. Stein’s reactions to World War II (1939–45) were recorded in Paris, France (1940) and Wars I Have Seen (1945), and her interest in the soldiers was reflected in the conversations of Brewsie and Willie (1946), which was published a week before her death, on July 27, 1946, in Neuilly, France.

Stein’s first book, Three Lives, her most realistic work, foreshadowed her more abstract writings and demonstrated a number of influences including, Gustave Flaubert’s (1821–1880) Trois contes, and automatic writing. “Melanctha,” the best of the three novellas that made up the book, was an especially tender treatment of an impulsive, flirting African American woman whose relations with men were recorded in a informal, deliberately repetitious style intended to capture the immediacy of consciousness. Stein wanted to give literature the plastic freedom that painting has, and Tender Buttons was a striking attempt at verbal “portraits” in the manner of the cubist painters, an early twentieth-century movement that emphasized the use of geometric shapes.

Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925) gave character analysis within a family chronicle, although it was chiefly concerned with the servants and only very little with the family members. In the 1930s and 1940s she concentrated on memoirs (an account of personal experience), aesthetic theory, plays, and art criticism. How to Write (1931) and The Geographical History of America: The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (1936) explained the theoretical basis of her literary practice.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), written as if by Toklas, was an autobiography of Stein. Unexpectedly readable and charming, it became a best-seller. Critic F. W. Dupee called it “one of the best memoirs in American literature.” A sequel, Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), described Stein’s visit to America, and Portraits and Prayers (1934) was a collection of verbal pictures of her Paris circle.

Stein’s libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) was a study of the attraction of opposites—the self-disciplined and the compassionate. Picasso (1939) was an inconsistent, witty, sometimes illuminating study of the development of the great painter’s art. Her three wartime books and In Savoy; Or Yes Is for a Very Young Man: A Play of the Resistance in France (1946) showed unexpected social concern.

After Stein’s death, there were numerous publications of the works she left behind. Some of the more notable are The Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein and Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. These works were released in 1974 and 1977 respectively. In 1996 Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts was remade into an avant-garde opera.



The Buddha, or “enlightened one” (free from ignorance and misunderstanding), was born Siddhartha Gautama in northern India near the town of Kapilavastu. His father was ruler of a poor Indian tribe, the Shakyas. His mother died seven days after giving birth to him. Some legends say that he was able to walk and talk at birth. It is also written that he first fell into a state of meditation (focusing all of one’s thoughts on something) as a boy while sitting under a tree watching his father plow a field. Meditation was to become an important part of his life.

It is said that Gautama’s father, in order to prevent him from worrying about the problems of suffering, death, and injustice, built a special palace for him surrounded with distracting luxuries. Gautama eventually married and had a son. But he continued to dwell on the great religious questions, and at the age of twenty-nine he made a bold move. He officially gave up his worldly commitments, left his family, and began a search for the answers to the questions that bothered him.

Gautama is said to have experimented with many different teachings for seven years but found none of them acceptable. He set them all aside, and at last, in a single night of deep meditation, he achieved a major breakthrough, an absolutely clear awareness of the real questions of life and the unique religious means for dealing with them. This enlightenment confirmed the truth of his insight, and at this point he became the Buddha.

It is told that at the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment he was entitled to its immediate rewards—complete salvation and spiritual release from the bonds of existence. This would have meant that his doctrine would never have been made known to other men. Another problem was how to communicate the teachings properly. After debating these issues, the Buddha decided to bring the message to others out of his love and concern for all men. This legend shows that the formal teaching is just the beginning. Understanding the teaching and putting it into practice varies greatly, depending on the ability of those who hear it, their needs, and their historical and cultural situation. In a sense, the history of Buddhism, in all its different forms, is proof of this fact.

The teaching is basically optimistic. It holds that every human being—regardless of his social position or past life—can through his own efforts obtain control of himself, of his ideas and passions, and of his destiny. Its main principles are caring for others, love, and nonin-jury to living creatures, and they place great importance on the obligation of all people to promote friendship and peace. The teachings are universal standards of behavior that have obvious benefits in terms of improving interpersonal relationships and social order. Buddha’s political teachings were drawn from those of his own clan. The king had the obligation to care for his people and, especially, to set high moral standards. A man who cannot do this is not worthy to rule. (In the traditions the Buddha is represented as consulting frequently with the leaders of the great states and petty kingdoms, teaching his beliefs and seeking to end all warfare.)

The traditions relate that the Buddha first preached his doctrine (Dharma) in Benares, India’s great holy city. He began his missionary work soon after with a handful of followers, offering the teaching to all who would hear and understand. The lives and practices of this little band were at first centered on the spiritual authority of the Buddha himself. As the number of followers grew, the loosely structured community (Sangha).

Buddha became more organized. It seems probable that by the time of the Buddha’s death, at the age of eighty, a number of basic institutional patterns had been set. These included a code of rules to keep order and a collection of the Buddha’s sayings. The major ceremonies included the twice-monthly uposatha, a gathering of the monks to recite the rules. Women were admitted to the order. Within the community all barriers of class, race, sex, and previous background were ignored under the impact of the universal message of the teaching.

Despite this appearance of routine organization, the Buddha in one of his last sermons is shown as rejecting all forms of religious authority: “Be lamps unto yourselves, O monks.” The main purpose of the rules was to guard the independence of each monk in his own spiritual quest. All those who had become official monks had an equal vote on matters affecting the welfare of the community. When disagreements within the group could not be resolved, those who disagreed simply left and formed a new community. Monks guilty of breaking the code of rules were expected to confess and to punish themselves. The Buddha is occasionally represented as being confused and disgusted by the often selfish behavior of the monks. On at least one occasion he took time to wash and care for a sick monk who had been neglected by the others. His own cousin, Devadatta, is believed to have started a movement to replace the Buddha as head of the order.

Although most of the Buddha’s followers devoted their entire lives to the teachings, the power of the Buddha’s personality also attracted many non-religious followers, known as the “householders.” The tradition relates that the Buddha said only that it was harder for the lay followers to attain final salvation, or nirvana, but this did not stop its members from trying. Lay devotees promised to follow the five rules (no killing, stealing, lying, having sex outside of marriage, or consumption of alcoholic beverages) for the sake of “well-being in this world and the next.”

The most striking feature of Buddhism is the wide variety of faiths and practices its teachings have inspired. In Tibet the political system was ruled until recently by spiritual leaders, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, who were regarded as supreme versions of the Buddha. Tibetan Tantrism is a combination of Buddhist and primitive teachings. In China and Japan, Zen Buddhism represents a special meditation-based adaptation that has been strongly influenced by Chinese values. In Sri Lanka Theravada Buddhism has served as an effective state religion, and is often combined with primitive animism (belief in spirits) and magic.

In looking for a single point of unity in all of these different forms of Buddhism, it is to be found only in the Buddha himself, who persists in all the traditions as a model of spiritual perfection and saving power.

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in Higher Bockhampton in Dorset, England, which formed part of the “Wessex” of his novels and poems. The first of four children, Hardy was born small and thought at birth to be dead. He grew to be a small man only a little over five feet tall. Hardy learned to love books through his mother, Jemina, and was able to read before starting school. He was taught by his father, also named Thomas, to play the violin, and he often journeyed about the countryside playing for dances and storing up the impressions of rural life that make up so large a part of his work.

Hardy attended a private school in Dorchester, England, where he learned Latin, French, and German. In 1856 at the age of sixteen, Hardy became an apprentice to John Hicks, an architect in Dorchester. At this time he thought seriously of attending university and entering the Church, but he did not do so. In 1862 he went to London, England, to work. Also at this time, Hardy began writing poetry after being impressed by Reverend William Barnes, a local poet.

In London Hardy continued to write poetry and began sending his poems to publishers, who quickly returned them. He kept many of the poems and published them in 1898 and afterward. Back in Dorchester in 1867 while working for Hicks, he wrote a novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, which he was advised not to publish because it was too critical of Victorian society. Told to write a novel with a plot, he turned out Desperate Remedies (1871), which was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Hardy had begun to work for Gerald Crickmay, who had taken over Hicks’s business. Crickmay sent Hardy to Cornwall, England, where on March 7, 1870, he met Emma Lavinia Gifford, with whom he fell in love. Hardy could have kept on with architecture, but he was a “born bookworm,” as he said, and in spite of his lack of success with literature he decided to continue writing, hoping eventually to make enough money so he could marry Gifford. Their courtship is recorded in A Pair of Blue Eyes and in some of Hardy’s most beautiful poems, among them “When I Set Out for Lyonnesse” and “Beeny Cliff.”

For Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) he earned 30 pounds and the book was well received. At the same time he was asked to write a novel for serialization in a magazine. In September 1872 A Pair of Blue Eyes began to appear, even though only a few chapters had been completed. Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), was published in magazines and was a success both financially and critically. Finally making a living from literature, Hardy married Gifford in September of 1874.

Hardy preferred his poetry to his prose and thought his novels merely a way to earn a living. But his best novels— The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)—were much more than magazine fiction. The people were dominated by the countryside of “Wessex,” Hardy’s name for the area in southwest England where he set most of his novels, and the area is as memorable as the people.

Good or bad, Hardy’s novels brought him money, fame, and acquaintance with greatness. With his wife he travelled in Germany, France, and Italy; he built Max Gate near Dorchester, where he lived from 1886 until his death; he frequently dined out, meeting poets Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), Robert Browning (1812–1889), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), and others. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) sought him out and visited him at Max Gate. It was a successful life and seemed happy enough, but he had a strained relationship with his wife.

Though Hardy’s novels seldom end happily, he was not, he stated, a pessimist. He called himself a “meliorist,” one who believed that man can live with some happiness if he understands his place in the universe and accepts it. He ceased to be a Christian, and he read the works of naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1892) and accepted the idea of evolution, the theory that animals, including man, developed from earlier species. Later he took to reading philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) and developed the notion of the Immanent Will, the blind force that drives the universe and in the distant future may see and understand itself.

Collecting new and old poems, Hardy published Wessex Poems (1898) and Poems of the Past and Present (1902). Then he began to publish The Dynasts, an immense drama of the Napoleonic Wars (a series of wars from 1792 to 1815 between France and different European powers) which depicts all the characters, even French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), as a puppet whose actions are determined by the Immanent Will. The “epic-drama” evolved into nineteen acts and 130 scenes and was published in three parts in 1903, 1905, and 1908. Meant to be read, not acted, it is frequently called Hardy’s masterwork.

Meanwhile Hardy continued to publish his shorter verse in Time’s Laughingstocks (1909). His most famous single volume of poems, Satires of Circumstance, appeared in 1914. It revealed the extremes of Hardy’s emotional range in the short, bitter poems referred to in the title and the longer poems about his first wife, who died in 1912. Selected Poems (1916), Moments of Vision (1917), Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), and Human Shows (1925) were published during the remainder of his life. Winter Words (1928) was published after his death.

Because in most cases Hardy published his poems years after he wrote them, the dates of when he wrote these pieces can be determined only by his references to them in The Early Life of Thomas Hardy or The Later Years. Because of this it is difficult to show Hardy’s growth as a poet. In fact, he hardly grew at all. In almost all his poems Hardy uses Victorian diction, regular meters, and neat stanzas. These cause him to be called a Victorian poet, but he also uses everyday words. These, with his dark view of the human condition and his blending of humor and pity, rank him with modern poets.

In 1914 Hardy married Florence Emily Dugdale, who had been his secretary for several years. He continued to receive famous visitors at Max Gate and continued to visit London for special occasions. He died on January 11, 1928. His heart was buried in the churchyard at Stinsford, England, his ashes in Westminster Abbey.

William Faulkner

William Faulkner

William Cuthbert Falkner (as the family spelled its name) was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. He grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, the oldest of four brothers. Both parents came from wealthy families reduced to poverty by the Civil War (1861–65). A great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner, had written The White Rose of Memphis, a popular novel of the 1880s. William was named in honor of his great-grandfather. William’s father owned a hardware store and
livery stable in Oxford and later became business manager of the state university. William did not attend public school consistently after the fifth grade; he left high school prior to graduation in order to work in his grandfather’s bank. William never earned his high school diploma despite being an avid reader and a lover of poetry.

In 1918, after the U.S. Army rejected him for being underweight and too short (5 feet 5 inches), Faulkner enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. During his brief service in World War I (1914–18), he suffered a leg injury in a plane accident. In 1918 he left the air force and returned home to Oxford.

In 1919 Faulkner enrolled at the University of Mississippi as a special student, but left the next year for New York City. After several odd jobs in New York he left and again returned to Mississippi, where he became postmaster at the Mississippi University Station. He was fired in 1924 for reading on the job. In 1925 he and a friend made a walking tour of Europe, returning home in 1926.

During the years 1926 to 1930 Faulkner published a series of novels, none commercially successful. But in 1931 the success of Sanctuary freed him of financial worries. He went to Hollywood for a year as a scriptwriter and an adviser.

It was not until after World War II (1939–45) that Faulkner received critical acclaim. The turning point for Faulkner’s reputation came in 1946, when Malcolm Cowley published the influential The Portable Faulkner (at this time all of Faulkner’s books were out of print). The rapid and widespread praise for Faulkner’s work was recognized in a 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Faulkner had married Estelle Oldham, his childhood sweetheart, in 1929, and they lived together in Oxford until his death. He was a quiet, dashing, courteous man, mustachioed and sharp-eyed. He constantly refused the role of celebrity: he permitted no prying into his private life and rarely granted interviews. William Faulkner died on July 6, 1962, in a hospital in Byhalia, Mississippi. He was sixty-four years of age.

During the early 1920s Faulkner wrote poetry and fiction. In the volume of verse The Marble Faun (1922), a printer’s error allegedly introduced the “u” into the author’s name, which he decided to retain. His friend, Philip Stone, supplied money for another book of poems, The Green Bough (1933).

Faulkner is considered a fine writer of the short story, and some of his stories, such as “A Rose for Emily,” are widely anthologized. His collections— These Thirteen (1931), Doctor Martino and Other Stories (1934), Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (1942), and Knight’s Gambit (1949)—deal with themes similar to those in his novels and include many of the same characters.

Soldiers’ Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927) precede Sartoris (1927), Faulkner’s first important work, in which he begins his Yoknapatawpha saga. This saga, Faulkner’s imaginative re-creation of the tragedy of the American South, is written so that each novel works with the others to clarify and redefine the characters. The novel introduces families that reappear in many of Faulkner’s novels and stories: the Sartoris and Compson families, representing the land-owning, aristocratic Old South; and the Snopes clan, representing the ruthless, commercial New South.

The book generally regarded as Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury (1929), is written in a style that differs from most novels of the time. It uses a stream-of-consciousness method, creating a different manner of thought in each of its four sections. The novel records the breakdown of the Compson family, which serves to suggest a breakdown of the southern ways of the past. Each section takes place in a single day; three sections are set in 1928 and one in 1910. The difficulties begin with the fact that the section set in 1910 is placed second in the book, while the other three set in 1928 are not in the order in which they occur during their three-day span.

The Benjy section (April 7, 1928) is the most difficult section to read. Because the mentally impaired Benjy lives in a state where things rarely change, his report is purely physical, and the reader must figure out his own order of time. Faulkner gives two aids, however: the device of signaling time shifts by alternating the typeface between bold and italic, and the different people attending Benjy.

Out of Benjy’s jumbled report comes background information for the novel. He is thirty-three years old, and in the constant care of an African American youth named Luster. Benjy is troubled by the absence of his sister, Candace, though she has been out of the household for eighteen years. The oldest son, Quentin, was sent to Harvard, where he committed suicide. Mrs. Compson is a self-pitying woman; Mr. Compson is a drunkard; Uncle Maury is a womanizer; Candace is lacking in morals and, in turn, her daughter, confusingly called Quentin (after her dead uncle), is also morally loose.

Ironically, the most sensitive and intelligent Compson, Quentin (whose day in the novel is June 1, 1910), shares Benjy’s obsession about their sister. Candace and the past dominate Quentin’s section, which is set in Boston on the day he commits suicide. He is oppressed by the knowledge that the pregnant Candace is to be married off to a northern banker. The upcoming marriage is the reason for his suicidal state.

Jason, the third Compson brother, whose day in the novel is April 6, 1928, is one of the great comic villains of literature. He has an irrational, jealous hatred of Candace. Now head of the family, he complains of his responsibilities as guardian of Candace’s daughter, Quentin, while systematically stealing the money Candace sends for her care. Jason is greedy, cunning, and concerned only with money and possessions. What makes him humorous is his self-pity. Jason’s lack of soul is evident in all of his habits. He leaves no mark on anything and lives totally in the present, which serves to represent the New South.

The novel’s final section, the only one told in the third person, gives the point of view of the sensible old black servant, Dilsey (her day is April 8, 1928). As with other Faulkner African American characters, her presence is chiefly practical: her good sense and solidity point at the selfishness and self-absorption of the white characters. In this section Jason meets with an overwhelming defeat. The novel’s chief assumption is that the Southern way of life is doomed.

As I Lay Dying (1930) is an absurd epic that uses the multiple stream-of-consciousness method to tell the ridiculous, humorous story of a family of poor whites intent on fulfilling the mother’s deathbed request for burial. The story in Light in August (1932) takes place in a single day. Although complicated by a subplot, Light in August generates enormous power and stands as one of Faulkner’s greatest books.

Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin

Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin was born to Sergei and Nadezhda Pushkin on May 26, 1799. On his father’s side he was a descendant of Russian nobility. On his mother’s side he was related to an African lord. But by the time Aleksandr was born, the family had gradually lost most of their wealth and influence, and they were lowered to the position of minor nobility. Aleksandr’s family life was far from ideal. His father was domineering and easily irritated, and his mother often left the young child alone in pursuit of her social ambitions.

Between 1811 and 1817 Pushkin attended a special school for privileged children of the nobility. Pushkin was not a very good student in most subjects, but he performed brilliantly in French and Russian literature.

After finishing school, Pushkin led a wild and undisciplined life. He wrote about 130 poems between 1814 and 1817, while still at school. Most of his works written between 1817 and 1820 were not published because his topics were considered inappropriate.

In 1820 Pushkin completed his first narrative poem, Russlan and Ludmilla. It is a romance composed of fantastic adventures but told with the humor of the previous century. However, even before Russlan and Ludmilla was published in June 1820, Pushkin was exiled to the south of Russia because of the political humor he had expressed in his earlier poems. Pushkin left St. Petersburg on May 6, and he would not return for more than six years.

Pushkin spent the years from 1820 to 1823 in various places in the southern part of Russia, including the Caucasus and in the Crimea. He was happy there at first, but later, he felt bored by the life in small towns and took up again a life of gambling and drinking. He was always short of money. He worked as a civil servant, but did not make much money and his family refused to support him.

Pushkin began to earn money with his poetic works, but not enough to keep up with his wealthy friends. In 1823 he was transferred to Odessa, a larger city more to his liking. Afterwards he moved to Mikhailovskoye, an estate owned by his family.

When Pushkin arrived at Mikhailovskoye, his relations with his parents were not good. His father was angry at him. The family left the estate about mid-November, and Pushkin found himself alone with the family nurse. He lived alone for much of the next two years, occasionally visiting a neighboring town and infrequently entertaining old Petersburg friends. At this time the nurse told Pushkin many folk tales, and it is believed that she gave him a feeling for folk life that showed itself in many of his poems.

Pushkin’s two years at Mikhailovskoye were extremely rich in poetic output. Among other works, he wrote the first three chapters of Eugene Onegin, and composed the tragedy Boris Godunov. In addition, he composed many important lyrics and a humorous tale in verse entitled Count Nulin.

Pushkin was eventually forgiven by the new czar, Nicholas I (1796–1855). The czar promised Pushkin that all of his works would be censored by the czar himself. Pushkin promised to publish nothing that would harm the government. After some time this type of censorship became a burden for Pushkin.

Pushkin continued to live a wild life for awhile, but wanted to settle down. He proposed to Nathalie Goncharova in 1830. He asked his future in-laws for money and convinced them to provide him with land and a house. He continued to work on Eugene Onegin and wrote a number of excellent lyrics, but did not complete a novel.

Eugene Onegin was begun in 1824 and finished in August 1831. This is a novel in verse and most regard it as Pushkin’s most famous work. It is a “novel” about life at that time, constructed in order to permit digressions and a variety of incidents and tones. The heart of the tale concerns the life of Eugene Onegin, a bored nobleman who rejects the advances of a young girl, Tatiana. He meets her later, when she is greatly changed and now sophisticated. He falls in love with her. He is in turn rejected by her because, although she loves him, she is married.

After 1830 Pushkin wrote less and less poetry. He married Nathalie Goncharova in 1831. She bore him three children, but the couple were not happy together. His new wife had many other admirers. He challenged one of her admirers to a duel that took place on January 26, 1837. Pushkin was wounded and died on January 29. There was great mourning at his death.

Many of Pushkin’s works provided the basis for operas by Russian composers. They include Ruslan and Ludmilla by Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), and The Golden Cockerel by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908).

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 23, 1899, one of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and Helene Rukavishnikov Nabokov’s five children. Nabokov’s parents were wealthy and encouraged him to develop his imagination. He studied languages, mathematics, puzzles, and games, including chess, soccer, and boxing. He was educated by private tutors and read English before he read Russian. He entered Prince Tenishev School in St. Petersburg at age eleven. Interested in butterflies his entire life, he became a recognized authority on the subject while still young. Nabokov began writing poems when he was thirteen years old and, as he described it, “the numb fury of verse making first came over me.” His first book of poetry was published in 1914.

Nabokov’s father, a lawyer and newspaper editor, was part of a failed movement to establish democracy in Russia. The family lost its land and fortune after the Russian Revolution in 1917 and fled to London, England, where Nabokov entered Cambridge University in 1919. Nabokov graduated in 1922 and rejoined his family in Berlin, Germany, where his father was shot to death by a monarchist.

Nabokov married Vera Slonim in 1925. They had one son, Dmitri, who later became an opera singer. In Berlin Nabokov taught boxing, tennis, and languages and constructed crossword puzzles. He began writing under the name “V. Sirin,” selling stories, poems, and essays to Russian-language newspapers in Berlin and then Paris, France. His work included translating different stories and poems into Russian and writing short stories, plays, novels, and criticism. In 1940 he moved to the United States.

In 1940 Nabokov taught languages at Stanford University in California. From 1941 to 1948 he taught at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where he became a professor of literature. He also did research in entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Massachusetts from 1942 to 1948. He later discovered several species of butterflies, including “Nabokov’s wood nymph.” While teaching he wrote The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), a parody of a mystery story whose hero is based on the author’s own life. In 1944 he completed a study of the life of Russian author Nicolai Gogol (1809–1852). Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945. By then his stories were appearing regularly in popular magazines.

Nabokov’s 1947 novel Bend Sinister is about an intellectual’s battle with a police state. In 1949 Nabokov was appointed professor of Russian and European literature at Cornell University in New York, where he taught until 1959. He wrote a book of memories of his life in Russia, Speak, Memory, in 1951. Several short sketches published in the New Yorker were put together in Pnin (1957), his novel about a Russian teaching at an American university.

Nabokov remained relatively unknown to the general public until writing Lolita, a sad but funny account of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged professor who falls for a twelve-year-old schoolgirl. It was first published in Paris in 1955. After its American release in 1958, some U.S. libraries banned it. The publicity helped the book become immensely popular. Nabokov also wrote the screenplay for the 1962 movie version of the book. With profits from the novel and the film, Nabokov was able to quit teaching and devote himself entirely to his writing and butterfly hunting.

In 1959 Nabokov published Invitation to a Beheading, a story of a man awaiting execution, which he had first written in Russian in 1938. In 1960 he moved his family to Montreux, Switzerland. He received critical praise for Pale Fire (1962), written as a 999-line poem with a long speech by an unstable New England scholar who is actually a mythical king in exile.

In 1963 Nabokov’s English translation of Alexander Pushkin’s (1799–1837) romantic novel Eugene Onegin was published. Nabokov called the four-volume work his “labor of love.” Several translations of earlier Russian works followed, including The Defense, a novel about chess. Nabokov constructed his novels like puzzles, rather than working from beginning to end. In 1964 he told Life magazine, “Writing has always been for me a torture and a pastime.” Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, at the Palace Hotel in Montreaux.

In April 2000 Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, which contained fiction, poems, nonfiction, and writings related to Nabokov’s love of butterflies, was published. Dmitri Nabokov translated it from Russian.

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur was born on December 27, 1822, in the small town of Dôle, France. His father was a tanner, a person who prepares animal skins to be made into leather. The men in Pasteur’s family had been tanners back to 1763, when his great-grandfather set up his own tanning business. Part of the tanning process relies on microbes. In tanning, microbes prepare the leather, allowing it to become soft and strong. Other common products such as beer, wine, bread, and cheese depend on microbes as well. Yet, at the time Pasteur was a child, few people knew that microbes existed.

Pasteur’s parents, Jean-Joseph Pasteur and Jeanne Roqui, taught their children the values of family loyalty, respect for hard work, and financial security. Jean-Joseph, who had received little education himself, wanted his son to become a teacher at the local lycée. Pasteur attended the École Primaire, and in 1831 entered the Collège d’Arboix. He was regarded as an average student, who showed some talent as an artist. Nonetheless, the headmaster encouraged Pasteur to prepare for the École Normale Supérieure, a very large training college for teachers located in Paris. With this encouragement he applied himself to his studies. He swept the school prizes during the 1837 and 1838 school year.

Pasteur went to Paris in 1838 at the age of sixteen. His goal was to study and prepare for entering the École Normale. Yet, he returned to Arboix less than a month later, overwhelmed with homesickness. In August of 1840 he received his bachelor’s degree in letters from the Collège Royal de Besançon and was appointed to tutor at the Collège. In 1842, at age twenty, he received his bachelor’s degree in science. He then returned to Paris, and was admitted to the École Normale in the autumn of 1843. His doctoral thesis was on crystallography, the study of forms and structures of crystals.

In 1848, while professor of physics at the lycée of Tournon, the minister of education granted Pasteur special permission for a leave of absence. During this time, Pasteur studied how certain crystals affect light. He became famous for this work. The French government made him a member of the Legion of Honor and Britain’s Royal Society presented him with the Copley Medal.

In 1852 Pasteur became chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Strasbourg, in Strasbourg, France. Here he began studying fermentation, a type of chemical process in which sugars are turned into alcohol. His work resulted in tremendous improvements in the brewing of beer and the making of wine. He also married at this time.

In 1854, at the age of thirty-one, Pasteur became professor of chemistry and dean of sciences at the new University of Lille. Soon after his arrival at Lille, a producer of vinegar from beet juice requested Pasteur’s help. The vinegar producer could not understand why his vinegar sometimes spoiled and wanted to know how to prevent it.

Pasteur examined the beet juice under his microscope. He discovered it contained alcohol and yeast. The yeast was causing the beet juice to ferment. Pasteur then demonstrated that controlled heating of the beet juice destroyed the yeast, and prevented fermentation. This process, called “pasteurization,” was eventually applied to preserve a number of foods such as cheese and milk. It also became the basis for dramatically reducing infection in the operating room.

In 1865 Pasteur was asked to help the ailing silk industry in France. An epidemic among silkworms was ruining it. He took his microscope to the south of France and set to work. Four months later he had isolated the microorganism causing the disease. After three years of intensive work he suggested methods for bringing it under control.

Pasteur’s scientific triumphs coincided with personal and national tragedy. In 1865 his father died. His two daughters were lost to typhoid fever in 1866. Overworked and grief-stricken, Pasteur suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1868. Part of his left arm and leg were permanently paralyzed. Nevertheless, he pressed on.

Pasteur saw the trains of wounded men coming home from the Franco-German War (1870–71). He urged the military medical corps to adopt his theory that disease and infection were caused by microbes. The military medical corps unwillingly agreed to sterilize their instruments and bandages, treating them with heat to kill microbes. The results were spectacular, and in 1873 Pasteur was made a member of the French Academy of Medicine—a remarkable accomplishment for a man without a formal medical degree.

A particularly devastating outbreak of anthrax, a killer plague that affected cattle and sheep, broke out between 1876 and 1877. The anthrax bacillus had already been identified by Robert Koch (1843–1910) in 1876. It had been argued that the bacillus did not carry the disease, but that a toxic substance associated with it did. Pasteur proved that the bacillus itself was the disease agent, or the carrier of the disease.

In 1881 Pasteur had convincing evidence that gentle heating of anthrax bacilli could so weaken its strength that it could be used to inoculate animals. Inoculation is a process of introducing a weakened disease agent into the body. The body gets a mild form of the disease, but becomes immunized the actual disease. Pasteur inoculated one group of sheep with the vaccine and left another untreated. He then injected both groups with the anthrax bacillus. The untreated sheep died and the treated sheep lived.

Pasteur also used inoculation to conquer rabies. Rabies is a fatal disease of animals, particularly dogs, which is transmitted to humans through a bite. It took five years to isolate and culture the rabies virus microbe. Finally, in 1884, in collaboration with other investigators, Pasteur perfected a method of growing the virus in the tissues of rabbits. The virus could be weakened by exposing it to sterile air. A vaccine, or weakened form of the microbe, could then be prepared for injection. The success of this method was greeted with excitement all over the world.

The question soon arose as to how the rabies vaccine would act on humans. In 1885 a nine-year-old boy, Joseph Meister, was brought to Pasteur. He was suffering from fourteen bites from a rabid dog. With the agreement of the child’s physician, Pasteur began his treatment with the vaccine. The injections continued over a twelve-day period, and the child recovered.

In 1888 a grateful France founded the Pasteur Institute. It was destined to become one of the most productive centers of biological study in the world.

In 1892 Pasteur’s seventieth birthday was the occasion of a national holiday. A huge celebration was held at the Sorbonne. Unfortunately Pasteur was too weak to speak to the delegates who had gathered from all over the world. His son read his speech, which ended: “Gentlemen, you bring me the greatest happiness that can be experienced by a man whose invincible belief is that science and peace will triumph over ignorance and war.… Have faith that in the long run … the future will belong not to the conquerors but to the saviors of mankind.”

On September 28, 1895, Pasteur died in Paris. His last words were: “One must work; one must work. I have done what I could.” He was buried in a crypt in the Pasteur Institute. Years later Joseph Meister, the boy Pasteur saved from rabies, worked as a guard at his tomb.

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris, France, on June 7, 1848, to a French father, a journalist from Orléans, and a mother of Spanish Peruvian descent. When Paul was three his parents sailed for Lima, Peru, after the victory of Louis Napoleon (1769–1821). His father died during the trip. Gauguin and his mother remained in Lima for four years. There the young Gauguin lived a comfortable life. Gauguin then returned to Orléans, and eventually found his way back to Paris. Next he attended a seminary. At the age of seventeen he enlisted in the merchant marine. In 1870 Gauguin began a career as a stockbroker and remained in this profession for twelve years. He married a Danish girl, Mette Sophia Gad, and seemed destined for a comfortable middle-class existence.

Gauguin’s hobby was painting, which he pursued enthusiastically. The Salon of 1876 accepted one of his pictures, and he started a collection of works by impressionist painters. The impressionists were a group of painters who concentrated on the general impression produced by a scene or object. They used unmixed primary colors and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light. As time went on, Gauguin’s desire to paint became ever stronger. In 1883 Gauguin, now thirty-five, decided to give up business and devote himself entirely to painting. His wife took their five children to live with her parents in Copenhagen, Denmark. Gauguin followed her, but he soon returned with his eldest son, Clovis, to Paris. There he supported himself by pasting advertisements on walls.

In 1886, with Clovis enrolled in a boarding school, Gauguin lived for a few months in the village of Pont-Aven in the Brittany region of northwestern France. He then left for the island of Martinique, first stopping to work as a laborer on the Panama Canal. He returned to Pont-Aven in February 1888 and gathered about him a group of painters. Gauguin preached and practiced a style he called synthetism, which involved pure color patterns, strong, expressive outlines, and flat planes. The painters admired the local people for their simple lives and deep religious faith. They felt these qualities reflected a truth about humanity’s basic nature, which was not reflected in the sophisticated world of Paris.

Among Gauguin’s masterpieces of this period are Vision after the Sermon/Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888) and the Yellow Christ (1889). In both paintings Breton peasants are strong elements. In both paintings one sees Gauguin’s usual bright colors and simplified shapes, which he treated as flat silhouettes. These paintings also show his use of symbolism. Objects and events are taken out of their normal historical contexts.

In Vision after the Sermon, Breton women observe Jacob wrestling with a stranger who turns out to be an angel. This is an episode described in the book of Genesis in the Bible. Gauguin is saying that the faith of these women enabled them to see miraculous events of the past as vividly as if they were occurring before them. In the Yellow Christ Gauguin used a yellow, wooden statue from a church near Pont-Aven as his model. He depicts Breton women as if they were in the presence of the actual death of Jesus Christ.

In October 1888 Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) invited Gauguin to join him at Arles, France. Gauguin was a proud, arrogant, sarcastic, and sophisticated person. Van Gogh was open and strongly needed human companionship. They did not get along and Gauguin returned to Paris. There he resumed his bohemian existence until 1891, when he left France and the Western civilization he had come to dislike and went to Tahiti.

Gauguin embodied the dissatisfaction with bourgeois Parisian existence felt by several postimpressionist painters. He achieved what was perhaps the most extreme break with that society when he left Europe for a non-Western culture. When Gauguin arrived in Tahiti, he did not settle in the capital, Papeete, because Europeans lived there. Instead, he lived with the natives some twenty-five miles away. He perceived Tahiti as a land of beautiful and strong people, who were unspoiled by Western civilization. He enjoyed the bright, warm colors there.

Gauguin became ill and returned to France in August 1893. There he found that he had inherited a small sum of money from an uncle. In Paris he lived with flair. An exhibition of his Tahitian work in November was not successful financially. In early 1894 he went to Denmark and then to Brittany.

Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings celebrate the lushness and mysterious splendor of his new environment. At the same time they are seldom pictures of actual Tahitian life. They contain combinations of objects and persons taken out of their normal settings, as did several of his paintings done in Brittany. In La Orana Maria (1891) a Tahitian woman, her young son, and two women standing nearby are shown in the obvious poses of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child with attendant saints or worshiping angels. In Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898) Tahitian natives are portrayed in unusual and probably preplanned meditative poses with a foreboding primitive idol.

In 1895 an unsuccessful auction of Gauguin’s paintings was held. He sailed for Tahiti that spring. He once again settled among the natives. His health grew poorer. An ankle he had broken in Brittany did not heal properly, and he suffered from strokes. The government authorities, for whom he showed contempt, harassed him. However, he had to depend on them for menial jobs in order to support himself. In 1901 he moved to the Marquesas Islands. He died there, alone, of a stroke on May 8, 1903.

Gauguin is regarded today as a highly influential founder of modern art. He focused on color and line, and often created a profound sense of mystery in his work. His unusual combinations of objects and people can be seen as forerunners of the surrealist art of the 1920s and later.