October 17 in Literature: Chekhov’s Seagull is Dead in the Water

The most significant events in the history of books on the 17th of October

1586: Sir Philip Sidney dies. The poet and courtier who wrote the long prose romance Arcadia (which some regard as an early example of the English novel) as well as one of the first sonnet sequences in English (Astrophil and Stella), Sidney died from wounds he received in the military campaign at Zutphen in the Netherlands. Sidney also invented the girls’ name Pamela.

1896: Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull flops at its premiere in St. Petersburg. The audience boos, and Chekhov leaves the audience after the first two acts, spending the rest of the play hiding backstage. The actress playing Nina in the play is put off by the booing and jeering from the audience, and loses her voice. Chekhov claims she had moved Anton Chekhovpeople to tears in rehearsal, but when the audience starts booing, her voice goes in a flash. After the performance Chekhov vows never to write another play. (He will go on to write several more, among them Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard.)

1903: Nathanael West is born. Perhaps the most famous of his novels is The Day of the Locust (1939), which includes a character named Homer Simpson. West went to Brown University – but only because of a chance coincidence. He was born Nathan Weinstein (his parents were Ashkenazi Jewish), and another student called Nathan Weinstein was enrolled at the same college where West – sorry, Weinstein – was studying. West promptly appropriated his namesake’s college transcript, and managed to con his way into the prestigious Rhode Island university.

Other notable births: playwright Arthur Miller (1915), poet George Mackay Brown (1921), fantasy author Alan Garner (1934), Australian poet Les Murray (1938), and Robert Jordan, best known for his ambitious Wheel of Time fantasy series (1948).

And on this day in 1910, we lost Julia Ward Howe, author of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, and in 1979, the humorist S. J. Perelman dies. One of his best one-liners is: ‘The dubious privilege of a freelance writer is that he’s given the freedom to starve wherever he likes.’ Fittingly, Perelman was a friend and associate of Nathanael West.

Image: Anton Chekhov in 1889, by V. Chekhovskii; Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Aw. Poor Chekhov, lucky Nathaniel West.
    I’m glad Chekhov decided to continue writing!

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