Literary Stories for Dec. 5-8

Reading time: 6 minutes

Here are your stories about notable literary birthdays and events for Dec. 5-8.

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Dec. 5

Joan Didion

In 1846, Nancy Hardin Cornwall and her husband, Josephus Adamson Cornwall, made a big decision. They would leave behind the wagon train with whom they’d been traveling for six months. The Cornwalls headed north toward Oregon Territory. The rest of their party continued west, into the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Shortly after the Cornwalls departed for Oregon, those they left behind became trapped in mountain snow. Their food ran out. Some resorted to cannibalism to live. Of the 83 members of the group, only 45 survived. We today know this group of travelers as the Donner Party.

The Cornwalls, however, made it to Oregon. There Josephus became one of the first ministers in the area. They raised a family. Five generations later, Nancy Hardin Cornwall’s great-great-granddaughter, Eduene, married a man named Frank Didion. On Dec. 5, 1934, Eduene gave birth in Sacramento, Calif. to a baby girl. They called her Joan.

Joan Didion became a prominent writer. She made a name for herself with essay collections, novels, and movie screenplays. Her best-known books are Play It as It Lays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and The Year of Magical Thinking. The latter book won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Growing up, Didion was obsessed with the Donner Party. The story of her ancestor’s’ near-tragic experience enthralled her. She kept a photo of Donner Pass, where the Donner Party met its tragic fate, on her writing desk. And she still has part of a green and red applique that Nancy Hardin Cornwall sewed on her journey to Oregon in 1846.

Dec. 6

Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds was selling a woman a pair of shoes at the Rag & Bone store in New York’s East Village. Two visitors arrived to see him. The guests were Christopher Myers and his father, writer Walter Dean Myers.

It was 2011. Reynolds had been in New York for six years. He moved there to become a published author. But he didn’t know how publishing worked. Reynolds's handed giving security guards at publishing houses copies of his self-published book. He hoped the guards would pass the story to someone at the company. Reynolds thought the book would make it into the hands of someone who could sign him to a publishing deal. This approach didn’t work.

Next, Reynolds applied to three Master of Fine Arts programs. Each program rejected him. So he turned to work in retail. That’s where the Myers found Reynolds when they walked into the Rag & Bone storefront.

The elder Myers asked Reynolds how often he writes. Reynolds said he wrote about five pages a day. Walter Dean said that’s about how much he wrote per day, too. He added, “So if you break it down, five pages a day, five days a week, that’s 25 pages a week, 100 pages a month. That’s a book every ten weeks. If you write a book every ten weeks, that’s five to six books a year, and more than any publisher can publish. And if you do it this way, I promise you after reading your manuscript, I can guarantee you that you should not worry because you will not fail.”

After the Myers’s visit, Reynolds read Walter Dean’s book The Young Landlords. It’s about six teenagers tricked into taking over a dilapidated building in Harlem. The story inspired Reynolds. For the first time, he felt like he could write in his voice, telling stories about his family and friends.

Reynolds went to work on what became his first book. When I Was the Greatest came out in 2014. Since then, Reynolds has published 13 books. He’s sold over 2.5 million copies of his young adult novels. And he’s a two-time National Book Award finalist, including for his most recent story, Look Both Ways.

Reynolds was born Dec. 6, 1983 in Washington, DC.

Dec. 7

Willa Cather

In early 1908, a writer for McClure’s Magazine named Willa Cather visited the Boston home of Annie Fields. Fields was a published author and widow of the famed publisher James T. Fields, who’d died in 1881.

Ever since Fields’s death, Annie had a roommate, Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett was also a writer. She set most of her stories in Maine, the state where she’d spent her life until moving in with Annie Fields in Boston.

Cather and Jewett struck-up a friendship the moment they met. Jewett was 24 years older than Cather. She took an interest in Cather’s writing career. Jewett wrote to Cather shortly after their first meeting. The elder writer said she worried that working at McClure’s prevented Cather from reaching her full literary potential.

And Jewett critiqued some of Cather’s work. Cather recalled that Jewett told her, “Write it as it is; don’t try to make it like this or that. You can’t do it in anybody else’s way—you will have to make a way of your own. If the way happens to be new, don’t let that frighten you. Don’t try to write the kind of short story that this or that magazine wants—write the truth and let them take it or leave it.”

Jewett died a year-and-a-half after she met Cather. Though they’d not known each other long before Jewett’s passing, the elder writer’s advice left a mark on Cather. McClure’s published a serialized version of Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, in 1912. Then the writer quit the magazine.

She started writing her next book, which came out in 1913 as O Pioneers!. The book was the first in which Cather wrote about her native Nebraska and the people she knew there. Cather dedicated O Pioneers! to the mentor whose guidance helped her find her way: “To the memory of Sarah One Jewett in whose beautiful and delicate work there is the perfection that endures.”

Cather produced two more books after O Pioneers!. The three novels comprise what’s known as Cather’s Prairie Trilogy. The Prairie novels are a few of Cather’s many books. She won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her book, One of Ours.

Cather was born in Back Creek, Va., in 1873. She moved to Nebraska with her family when she was nine.

About storytelling, Cather said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

Dec. 8

Delmore Schwartz

Dec. 8 is the birthday of a writer who burst onto the American literary scene with a short story critical of his parents’ marriage. The writer is Delmore Schwartz, born in Brooklyn in 1913.

One July weekend in 1935, Schwartz wrote a story about a man in a movie theater. He’s watching a fictitious film that documents his parents’ engagement. As the character’s father proposes to his mother, he stands in the theater and shouts, “‘Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.’”

The character in Schwartz’s tale, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” is unnamed. But most readers understand that the man in the theater is the story’s author. Schwartz’s parents, Harry and Rose, did indeed have an unhappy marriage. Harry was unfaithful to Rose. When Schwartz was seven, he watched as his mother scolded her husband inside a restaurant after catching him with another woman.

“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” was first published in 1937 in a Socialist magazine called Partisan Review. The next year, it was the title piece in Schwartz’s first poetry collection. Poets such as T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell praised Schwartz’s story, sweeping the writer into the upper crust of New York literary society.

But expectations for Schwartz fell once his next work, a book-length poem titled Genesis, came out. The book received some critical praise, mostly from friends of Schwartz’s. But many readers found it tedious and lengthy. And Schwartz’s later work, from poems to plays, failed to garner as much attention as “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”

Schwartz continued writing and teaching. He held positions at Harvard, Princeton, and Kenyon College. But he grew addicted to drugs and alcohol. And he suffered from mental illness. By the late 1950s, he was no longer a professor. He stayed off and on in mental institutions.

Schwartz did manage to produce another poetry collection in 1959. That book, Summer Knowledge: New and Selected Poems, earned Schwartz a Bollingen Prize. He was the youngest poet to win the award.

But over the final seven years of his life, Schwartz’s mental and physical health deteriorated. He was living in a rundown hotel in New York’s Times Square district in July 1966 when he died of a heart attack. Authorities took his body to the morgue at Bellevue Hospital. There it lay unclaimed for two days until a reporter happened to notice his name. Delmore Schwartz was 52.


Joan Didion

Jason Reynolds

Willa Cather

Delmore Schwartz