Literary daybook, Feb. 10

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published February 10, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 10, 1969, Parsifal sees his family for the last time.
-- "The Magician's Assistant" (1997)
By Ann Patchett

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 1846, Edward Lear's "A Book of Nonsense" was published. This was the first of his four "nonsense" books, and Lear was the first in a golden half-century of English nonsense that would include Lewis Carroll and Hilaire Belloc. Lear was a self-taught illustrator with a special talent for animals, and while still in his 20s he was commissioned to make drawings of the Earl of Derby's menagerie, and to live with the Earl while doing them. During his four-year residence, Lear entertained the Earl's grandchildren with his nonsense limericks and accompanying illustrations. He also developed his enduring fear of living as if confined in some stuffy Victorian mansion: "Nothing I long for half so much as to giggle heartily and hop on one leg down the great gallery -- but I dare not."

Lear left England in 1837, and spent most of the next 50 years living or traveling in Italy, Greece, India and Egypt, producing seven illustrated travel books about his wanderings. His contemporaries, his letters and his biographers all portray him less as the avuncular eccentric than as a lonely bachelor plagued by epilepsy, asthma, melancholia and a tangle of maladjustments -- to being a 20th child raised virtually parentless, a victim of sexual abuse, a repressed homosexual, and more. Like the travel and the painting, the nonsense became a way to cope or cover up, with samples such as the following vulnerable to readings that range from the innocent to the Freudian:

"There was an Old Man in a Barge,
Whose Nose was exceedingly large;
But in fishing by night,
It supported a light,
Which helped that Old Man in a Barge."

"How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear," written in his last decade, may be a way of saying "how unpleasant to be Mr Lear," always at sea in a sieve or in shoes too tight; it may also be just fun, and true:

"... When he walks in a waterproof white,
 The children run after him so!
Calling out, 'He's come out in his night --
 Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!'

He weeps by the side of the ocean,
 He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
 And chocolate shrimps from the mill.

He reads but he cannot speak Spanish,
 He cannot abide ginger-beer:
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
 How pleasant to know Mr Lear!"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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