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Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking surrounded by other men.

Writers’ & Poets’ Birthdays & Other Literary History – January 15, 2018

Today is Jan. 15, 2018, Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. It’s the birthday of poet Nâzım Hikmet and writers Ernest J. Gaines, Jenny Nimmo, and Jon Lee Anderson. Our poem today is from Wilfred Owen. An audio version of this post is below. Thank you for reading.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Today in the United States is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The holiday recognizes the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking surrounded by other men.

The idea of a holiday honoring King began immediately after his murder on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, TN. Four days after King’s murder, U.S. Rep. John Conyers introduced legislation for making Jan. 15 a federal holiday in King’s name. The bill went nowhere.

Conyers persisted. Each year he presented legislation that would create a federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

By 1983 the Congressional Black Caucus had six million signatures endorsing the holiday. And pop singer Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” in favor of a holiday for King.

That year, Congress passed the bill making Jan. 15 Martin Luther King Jr. Day. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.

It took 17 years before all 50 states recognized the holiday. New Hampshire was the final state to do so in 2000.

Alabama and Mississippi, however, celebrate a joint Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day. Robert E. Lee, who served as commander of the Confederate States Army in the U.S. Civil War, was born on Jan. 19.

Nâzım Hikmet

Born today in 1902 in Salonika, Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloníki, Greece), was Nâzım Hikmet. He’s viewed by many as the first modern Turkish poet. His poems have been translated into more than 50 languages.

After World War I, Hikmet attended university in Moscow. He became a communist.

Hikmet returned to Turkey in 1924. The government jailed him many times over the years due to his politics. He left Turkey for the last time in 1951.

From his poem, “In the Snowy Night Woods:”

The strangest of our powers
Is the courage to live
Knowing that we will die,
Knowing nothing more true.

Ernest J. Gaines

And born today in 1933 on a former Louisiana plantation was Ernest J. Gaines.

Gaines’s family had lived on the former River Lake Plantation near Oscar, LA since the Civil War. First they were slaves, then they were sharecroppers.

His mother and stepfather left River Lake for California for work during World War II. Gaines joined them when he turned 15.

In Vallejo, CA, Gaines spent time in the public library. There he discovered 19th-century Russian literature. The stories about feudal land ownership reflected his childhood in rural Louisiana. When he couldn’t find books reflecting his background, though, Gaines began to write his own stories.

At 17 he sent a publisher a manuscript he’d written for a novel. The publisher declined to publish the novel, and Gaines burned the manuscript.

Gaines graduated from San Francisco State University in 1957. He then completed a graduate writing program at Stanford University. He was living in San Francisco, working part-time jobs so he could focus on writing when a friend told him novels were how writers made a living. So Gaines rewrote the manuscript he burned when he was 17.

That manuscript became his first novel, “Catherine Carmier,” in 1964. The book wasn’t much of a commercial success, but Gaines kept writing. He published “Of Love and Dust” in 1967. That same year he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

And then, in 1971, Gaines achieved his first major success with “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” The book tells the life story of a 110-year-old former slave, from the Civil War to the dawn of the 1960s civil rights movement. A CBS TV movie version of the book aired in 1974, starring Cicely Tyson. The movie won nine Primetime Emmy Awards.

Gaines received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1972. He became a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1984. In 1993 he received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He’s also received a National Humanities Medal and a National Medal of Arts award.

Today, Gaines continues to write. He and his wife, Dianne, live where it all began for Gaines, the former River Lake Plantation in Louisiana.

Donkey Used to Represent Democratic Party

It was today in 1870 that the first illustration using a donkey to represent the Democratic Party appeared. Thomas Nast drew the cartoon. It appeared in Harper’s Magazine.

Jenny Nimmo

Also born today, in 1942 in Windsor, England, was Jenny Nimmo.

Nimmo is the author of many children’s books, such as “The Snow Spider” and “The Children of the Red King” series. Five of the series’ eight books made The New York Times bestseller list.

Magic features in much of Nimmo’s work. About this, she said, “Every book that you pick up takes you a step away from your real world, but if you read a book about magic, it takes you an extra two steps.”

Nimmo lives with her husband, painter David Wynn Millward, in an old water mill in Wales. She writes from autumn to spring, taking summers off to help David run a summer art school.

Jon Lee Anderson

Today is also the birthday of author and The New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson.

Anderson has covered conflicts around the globe, from Afghanistan to Sudan, Libya to Iraq. He’s written about events in the Caribbean and Latin America. And he’s the author of four books, including 2002’s “The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan.”


Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

– Wilfred Owen, Public Domain

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