Here are your stories about notable literary birthdays and events for Dec. 26-29.
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Jean Toomer was born on Dec. 26, 1894, in Washington, DC, as Nathan Pinchback Toomer. His first and last names came from his father. But Toomer’s dad abandoned him and his mother, Nina, not long after he was born. Nina and her baby moved back in with her parents, the Pinchbacks.
P.B.S. Pinchback, Toomer’s grandfather, was a former governor of Louisiana. He’d been the first black governor in the U.S. Now living in DC, he and his wife, also named Nina, were members of Washington, DC’s, prosperous black community. This status gave Toomer a good education. And, when he became an adult, his grandfather’s connections got him an interim principal job in Georgia.
Toomer spent eight weeks in Georgia at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute. Though he wasn’t in Georgia long, it was the first time he’d seen Southern black culture. The experience shook Toomer. He later wrote that “a deep part of my nature, a part that I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded to them.”
And it was on his train ride home to Washington, DC, in 1922 that Toomer started writing stories based on his time in Georgia. He created stories about six black women. Toomer highlighted through these characters the reality for black Americans, both in the South and the North. And the following year, 1923, Toomer’s work came out as the novel Cane.
Critics loved the book for its authentic portrayal of African American life. And many appreciated Toomer’s confronting of racial and sexual issues. The acclaim, though, didn’t help sales. Only 500 copies of Cane sold in its first printing.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that more people read Cane. The Civil Rights and Black Arts Movement helped others discover Toomer’s novel. A reprinting of the book came out in 1967, which is when Alice Walker read it for the first time. About Cane, she later said, “I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it.”
At the time that Cane first came out, some thought it would launch Toomer’s literary career. Instead, it’s the only book he wrote. The writer moved with his wife, Marjorie, to Doylestown, Pa., in 1937. There he lived until his death in 1967.
Brad Bird was listening to an episode of NPR’s This American Life when he heard a voice he liked. The show was airing a story by one of its contributors, Sarah Vowell. The segment was about a cannon made by Vowell’s father, and her being with him when he fired it in the mountains of Montana.
Vowell was born on Dec. 27, 1969, in Muskogee, Okla. She sounds younger than her age. And as Bird listened to This American Life, he thought Vowell could voice a character in an animated movie he was making for Pixar Animation Studios. The role was Violet Parr, a sassy teenage girl. And the movie was The Incredibles.
Vowell, though, wasn’t sure she could do the voiceover work. Plus, she was happy being a writer and NPR contributor. Vowell met Brad and visited Pixar. In the end, she decided to give The Incredibles a shot. If nothing else, she figured she’d learn how studios make animated movies.
But first, Pixar CEO Steve Jobs had to approve of Vowell’s casting. It took a while to hear from Jobs, yet he signed off on Vowell as Violet Parr. “I guess Steve Jobs was okay with me,” Vowell said.
The Incredibles hit theaters in 2004. Vowell returned as Parr in a sequel, Incredibles 2, that came out last year.
Voiceover work isn’t Vowell’s primary job, though. Writing humorous American history books is. Or, as Vowell explained, “When I meet someone new, and they ask me what I do, I say, ‘I’m a writer,’ and they say, ‘What do you write?’ I say, ‘I write books.’ They say, ‘Oh, novels?’ I say, ‘No, narrative nonfiction books about American history,’ and then, usually, there are no follow-up questions.”
Vowell’s books include The Wordy Shipmates and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Many of her books are New York Times bestsellers.
Charles Portis was born on Dec. 28, 1933, in El Dorado, Ark. His father was a superintendent of schools. His mother was a homemaker who wrote poems, and his great Uncle Sat was a talented storyteller.
Portis also knows how to tell a story. He’s the author of novels such as Norwood, True Grit, and The Dog of the South. True Grit’s inspired two movies. The first opened in theaters in 1969. It starred John Wayne, for which the actor won his only Academy Award. And the second film, directed by the Coen brothers Ethan and Joel, came out in 2010.
Despite the attention generated by his books, Portis keeps a low profile. He has a telephone with an unlisted number. And, at least as of a few years ago, Portis doesn’t use email. If that’s changed, he’s not telling many people, least of all the media. That’s because Portis declines all interview requests. As his friend William Whitworth said, “Talking about himself is something that would feel false and strange to him. It would be like asking him to stand up and sing like Frank Sinatra, or be on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’”
Portis eschewing modern communication isn’t new. He didn’t have a phone in his apartment when he worked as a reporter in the early 1960s for the New York Herald until his bosses made him get one.
From New York, Portis moved to England and reported out of the paper’s London bureau for a year. Then he quit and moved back to his native Arkansas. Or, as his friend Tom Wolfe explained, “Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific...He sold both books to the movies...He made a fortune...A fishing shack! In Arkansas!”
Portis is still in Arkansas, though not in a fishing shack. He lives in Little Rock, where he’s sometimes spotted around town. The author went 21 years without publishing a book. But in 2012, he released Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. It’s a collection of his essays and short stories.
When William Gaddis was a kid on Long Island, he and a friend, Henry Parke, didn’t like the billboard a local retailer put up over a highway. Most of the sign featured an enlarged portrait of the store’s proprietor. So one night, Gaddis and Parke painted glasses, a mustache, and a cigar on the businessman’s face.
The next day the store owner went to the police. A cop visited the local five-and-dime store to see if any boys had recently bought any paint. A clerk told the cop that, yes, Bill Gaddis and Henry Parke had gotten some paint the other day.
To keep the boys from prosecution for vandalism, Parke’s father paid to have the billboard repaired. But Mr. Parke wanted Gaddis to pay him back for his half of the damages, so the boy got a job at a local produce stand. He soon figured out he could sell more by tricking customers who came from New York City. And that’s when Gaddis started working in worn overalls and a straw hat and spoke with a fake country twang. His rouse worked so well that he got promoted.
Later, as a novelist, Gaddis featured young, mischievous male characters in his books. And a defaced portrait plays a part in his first novel, The Recognitions. That book came out in 1955.
The novel’s 956 pages include more than 50 characters across 30 years and many countries. Critics blasted The Recognitions. The criticism was so harsh that it took Gaddis 20 years to deliver another book. In the meantime, he worked as a freelance writer. Gaddis wrote for magazines and produced speeches for corporate executives.
Then in 1975, he released JR. It’s the story of an 11-year-old boy who makes a fortune trading penny stocks. The book satirizes greed in American culture. It won the 1976 National Book Award for Fiction, but the honor didn’t garner much attention for Gaddis.
Indeed, Gaddis’s work remains unknown to many readers. Yet he’s influenced other writers, including Jonathan Franzen. Franzen called The Recognitions “the most difficult book I ever voluntarily read in its entirety.” But he also labeled Gaddis a “literary hero.” And The Recognitions inspired Franzen to name his third novel, The Corrections.
Gaddis was born on Dec. 29, 1922, in New York, N.Y. Twice he won the National Book Award for Fiction. His second came in 1994 for his novel A Frolic of His Own. Gaddis passed away in 1998.
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"Jean Toomer." The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Dec. 22, 2019. Accessed on Dec. 22, 2019.
"Cane." The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Aug. 11, 2014. Accessed on Dec. 22, 2019.
"Jean Toomer: The Fluidity of Racial Identity." Elizabeth Brevard. National Portrait Gallery. Accessed on Dec. 22, 2019.
"A Century Later, a Novel by an Enigma of the Harlem Renaissance Is Still Relevant." Paul Sehgal. The New York Times. Dec. 25, 2018. Accessed on Dec. 22, 2019.
"Jean Toomer (1894-1967)." Gene Andrew Jarrett. African American Literature Beyond Race: An Alternative Reader. NYU Press. 2006.
"Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’ and the Ambiguity of Identity." George Hutchinson. The New York Review of Books. Dec. 28, 2018. Accessed on Dec. 22, 2019.
"Jean Toomer." Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose." Alice Walker. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2004.
"Theories of Ethnicity: A Classical Reader." Henry B. And Anne M. Cabot. NYU Press. 1996.
"Sarah Vowell." IMDB. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"12 Things You Didn't Know About Sarah Vowell." Erin McCarthy. Mental Floss. Oct. 30, 2015. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"Sarah Vowell." Steven Barclay Agency. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"History with a Twist: An Interview with Sarah Vowell." Richard Ernsberger Jr. HistoryNet. Feb. 2016. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"Incredibles 2: Sarah Vowell Talks About Her First Start In Voicing Violet." Gig Patta. Latino-Review Media. June 13, 2018. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"Charles Portis." John M. Cunningham. Encyclopedia Britannica. July 9, 2019. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"True Grit by Charles Portis." Jay Jennings. National Endowment for the Arts Reader Resources.
"True Grit, Odd Wit: And Fame? No, Thanks." Charles McGrath. The New York Times. Dec. 19, 2010. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany." Charles Portis. Edited by Jay Jennings. Aug. 27, 2013.
"William Gaddis." The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Dec. 12, 2019. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"'Fire the Bastards!': The Great Defender of William Gaddis." Mark O'Connell. The New Yorker. Feb. 17, 2012. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"William Gaddis." University at Albany. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"The Self that Did So Much: Writing William Gaddis." Greg Gerke. Kenyon Review. Summer 2016. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.
"New Details Emerge About the Young William Gaddis." Ted Gioia. Los Angeles Review of Books. Oct. 16, 2013. Accessed on Dec. 23, 2019.