Literary Daybook, April 4

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published April 4, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On April 4, 1984, Winston Smith senses that O'Brien is also against Big Brother.
-- "1984" (1949)
by George Orwell

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1928, Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, as Marguerite Johnson. As a child she got the nickname "maya" ("mine") from her brother; she chose the "Angelou" later, at the beginning of her stage career. The title of the first and most famous volume of her autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," she took from a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings,
I know why the caged bird sings!

The troubles inflicted on her early years -- her parents' divorce, invasive racism, rape at the age of 8, five years of mute withdrawal, motherhood at 16 -- were comforted by reading. To her grandmother's list of acceptable black authors -- Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson -- Angelou would secretly add a handful of banned classics:

"During these years in Stamps [Arkansas], I fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love ... It was Shakespeare who said, 'When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes.' It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it couldn't matter to anyone any more." Angelou has said that her remarkable and varied life -- prostitute, dancer, actor, writer, activist, educator, academic -- has been made possible by a "remedy of hope" made from reading, courage and "insouciance."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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