Literary Stories for Nov. 25-27, 2019

Reading time: 4 1/2 minutes

Here are your stories about notable literary birthdays and events for Nov. 25-27.

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Nov. 25

Isaac Rosenberg

In 1915, a few months after Britain declared war on Germany, Isaac Rosenberg joined the British Army. He wouldn't survive the Great War. But his poetry did.

Rosenberg detested war. But he was unemployed and out of money, as was his mother, Hacha. So Rosenberg volunteered for the army, arranging for Hacha to get half of his military pay. 

Before enlisting, Rosenberg was a promising painter and poet. He grew up poor in the Jewish ghetto in East London. His family struggled to pay for his education. At 14, Rosenberg started working as an apprentice to an engraver. 

It's around this time, in 1905, that Rosenberg started writing poems. And he discovered painting. The aspiring artist began attending art classes at night at London’s Birkbeck College.

And in 1911, some wealthy women in London's Jewish community paid for Rosenberg to attend the Slade Art School. Rosenberg left his apprenticeship with the engraver and devoted himself to being a full-time artist. He painted, and he wrote poetry, self-publishing in 1912 his first collection, Night and Day. His poems weren't well-received. Critics called his pieces wordy and accused Rosenberg of mimicking legendary poets, such as William Butler Yeats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

For three years, Rosenberg tried to make a living as a poet and a painter. He moved for a time to South Africa, where he hoped the drier climate would help with a chronic chest infection. And it's there that news reached Rosenberg of Great Britain entering the Great War.

Rosenberg returned to England in March 1915. He self-published a second poetry collection, Youth, and joined the army. The poet arrived in France in June 1916. 

Rosenberg served 21 months in the trenches of the Great War's Western Front. At least part of his service was as a stretcher-bearer. And, when he could, Rosenberg jotted down poems on whatever scraps of paper he could find. Rosenberg sent his poems to his sister Annie. Some of these pieces, known today as "trench poems," reflected the grungy, terrifying existence of a foot soldier in the Great War. 

But Rosenberg was killed on Apr. 1, 1918, in rural France near the city of Aras. His remains were identified in 1926. 

By then, though, a collection of Rosenberg's "trench poems" had been published. That book, Poems, came out in 1922. It was compiled by his friend, the poet Gordon Bottomley, who received typed versions of Rosenberg's poems from Annie.

Today, Rosenberg is considered one of England's most celebrated war poets. And he's remembered on a plaque alongside 15 fellow Great War poets in Westminster Abbey's Poets Corner.

Nov. 26

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson was an American literature Ph.D. student at the University of Washington in the 1970s when she started doing something that would pay off a few years later. Robinson jotted onto pieces of paper metaphors used by 19th-century American writers. She later recalled that she did this, "just to get the feeling of writing in that voice." 

Robinson earned her Ph.D. in 1977. She then went back and reread the metaphors she had written down. That's when she noticed something. The metaphors, Robinson said, "cohered in a way that I hadn't expected. I could see that I had created something that implied much more."

So Robinson set to work on what would become her first novel, Housekeeping. The book came out in 1980 and earned immediate praise. Helped in part by a glowing review by the writer and critic Anatole Broyard in The New York Times, Housekeeping sold well. And it netted Robinson the 1982 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction.

For the next two decades, Robinson focused on writing nonfiction and teaching. She published book reviews and essays in Harper's Magazine and The New York Times Book Review. She produced a couple of nonfiction books, 1989's Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution and 1998's The Death of Adam. And Robinson became a creative writing professor at The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1991.

But 24 years after publishing her first novel, Robinson released her second. Gilead came out on Nov. 4, 2004. It's a series of diary entries written by a 1950s Iowa minister to his son. For the book, Robinson won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Since then, Robinson has produced two more novels, essays, and more nonfiction books. In 2012 she accepted a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. And the writer retired from teaching in 2016, but she continues to publish. Her most recent book came out in 2018. It's a collection of lectures titled, What Are We Doing Here?

Robinson was born in Sandpoint, Idaho in 1943.

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Nov. 27

James Agee

On a warm, sunny May day in New York City in 1955, writer James Agee is riding in the back of a cab. His doctor's office is the destination, but Agee never makes it. Instead, he has a heart attack that leaves him dead at 45 years old.

Agee's death wasn't a shock. Years of smoking and drinking were taking its toll. He had a heart attack in 1951. And, more recently, Agee had spoken with his wife, Mia, about his burial wishes. Still, Agee left Mia and their three kids with $450 and the unfinished manuscript to an autobiographical novel. 

David McDowell, a friend and literary executor of Agee's estate, wanted to help Mia and her kids. So he edited Agee's incomplete manuscript into a finished book. McDowell added to the start of the novel a poem Agee had written years earlier, "Knoxville: Summer 1915." And McDowell formed with his business partner, Ivan Obolensky, the publishing company McDowell, Obolensky, Inc. 

The Agee manuscript that McDowell worked on was one of the first books released by the publishing house. The book was A Death in the Family. It came out in 1957. And it received the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, three years after its author's death.

Agee was born Nov. 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tenn. His postal worker father died in an automobile accident when Agee was six. It's that experience on which Agee based his manuscript that McDowell turned into A Death in the Family.

Agee wrote in the novel, "How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life."

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Sources

I strive to be as accurate as possible in the stories I write. All sources used in researching for Bidwell Hollow’s literary stories are from reputable organizations and authors with trusted fact-checking and editorial processes.

However, errors can occur. If you see a factual error, please let me know. I'll make every effort to verify and correct any factual inaccuracies. Thank you!

Isaac Rosenberg

Marilynne Robinson

James Agee

  • "Agee Unfettered." Will Blythe. The New York Times. Jun. 15, 2008. Accessed on Oct. 13, 2019.