Literary Stories for Nov. 28-Dec. 1

Reading time: 4 1/2 minutes

Here are your stories about notable literary birthdays and events for Nov. 28-Dec. 1. Before we get down to business, let me wish you a Happy Thanksgiving! 🦃 🥧🦃 🥧

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Nov. 28

William Blake

In a way, William Blake invented self-publishing. Blake designed a process for producing books. He called the technique illuminated printing. It’s through this method that Blake published some of his poetry.

Blake was born Nov. 28, 1757, in London. Early on, his parents recognized their son’s artistic talent. They sent him to drawing school when he was 10. But Blake had to drop out four years later. His parents couldn’t afford the tuition. 

Instead, Blake became an apprentice for an engraver named James Basire. Blake worked for Basire for seven years and then struck out on his own. And, for a time, Blake ran a successful business. His work consisted of engraving, or copying, other artists’ work.

At that time, the process of producing an illustrated book involved several steps and multiple artisans. First, an engraver used a letterpress to publish a book’s text. Then another engraver used a copper plate printer to add illustrations. This is the step in which Blake made his living. He created copper plates based on other artists’ renderings.

But the work didn’t fulfill him. Blake didn’t enjoy duplicating others’ work. Besides, he was more than an engraver. He also was an artist. And he’d been writing poems since he was 12. So Blake developed a new process that allowed him to produce by himself an illustrated book.  

Blake controlled every step of this new method. He wrote a book’s poems and drew its illustrations. Then he used what’s called stop-out varnish to publish the text and drawings. “The stop-out varnish is critical because once dry, it prevents the acid, the mordant, from biting into or dissolving the exposed areas of the copper surrounding it,” Michael Phillips, an expert on Blake’s production process said. Phillips discusses Blake’s innovative publishing process in the video below.

Blake called this technique illuminated printing. Using it, he published his poetry and artwork in Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). Unfortunately for the poet, most ignored his poems during his lifetime. He’d only sold 20 copies of both Songs of Innocence and Experience by the time he died in 1827. And those who knew of Blake’s writing questioned his sanity. His poems did, after all, question accepted ideas about God and humanity.

But in 1863, a biography of Blake started changing perceptions of the poet. The Life of William Blake by Alexander Gilchrist rallied readers to restore Blake’s reputation. About the poet’s madness, Gilchrist wrote, "Does not prophet or hero always seem 'mad' to the respectable mob, and to polished men of the world, the motives of feeling and action being so alien and incomprehensible?" 

By the 20th century, many regarded Blake as a leading poet of English Romanticism. Artists and writers from Maurice Sendak to Patti Smith to Allen Ginsburg cited Blake as influencing their work. 

Nov. 29

Louisa May Alcott

In the autumn of 1867, Thomas Niles approached Louisa May Alcott with a business proposition. He wanted Alcott to write a book he could sell to young women. Niles was an editor at Robert Brothers Publishing. He saw in Alcott a potential moneymaker for his employer.

Alcott had already demonstrated her writing ability. She was the author of the well-known book Hospital Sketches. It’s a compilation of letters she wrote about her experience as a nurse and patient in a Union hospital during the Civil War. And magazines published many of her short stories, and some of which came out produced in book form, too. In all, Alcott’s writing had gained a following. Most importantly to her, her work provided income for her family.

After all, the Alcotts of Concord, Mass. needed money. As a Transcendentalist, Bronson held fantastical ideas about Utopian societies and children’s education. His views contributed to a unique childhood for his four daughters. But they did little to support the family.

Someone needed to help pay the Alcott’s bills. That’s why Louisa May, Bronson’s and Abigail’s second-oldest daughter, pursued publishing her writing in the first place. And it’s why she agreed to meet with the editor Niles, who asked her to produce a book about young girls. Niles knew there was a growing market in America of young, literate female readers. He wanted a book he could sell these adolescents.

Alcott, though, didn’t want to write Niles’s book. About writing a book for young women, Alcott wrote in her journal, "Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” Yet the writer knew her family needed the money. She accepted Niles’s offer. Except, she kept putting off writing the book. 

And so in May 1868, Niles went around the author’s back and met with Bronson. The father had written a manuscript he wanted to have published. Niles agreed to publish Bronson’s work, but only if Bronson could get his daughter to finish the book that she’d told Niles she would write.

Bronson convinced Louisa to write the book. He suggested she tell a story based on her and her sisters’ experiences growing up in the Alcott household. And so she did. Louisa wrote 402 pages in two months. Her manuscript was first published in two volumes starting in September 1868 under the title: Little Women.

The book was an instant hit. Little Women made its author a celebrity. It produced more than enough money for her to pay off her family’s debts. Today, Little Women remains a popular read for young women and adults alike.

Louisa May Alcott was born Nov. 29, 1832, in Philadelphia, Pa.

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Madeleine L’Engle

By her count, publishers rejected Madeleine L’Engle’s manuscript 26 times. “For me there isn’t quite enough story value,” one editor wrote in his rejection letter. Another said, “It’s too damn long in its present state... I would advise the author to do a cutting job on it by half.”

L’Engle tweaked the book’s copy some, but she refused to make massive changes to her story. “I won’t destroy my book for money for some editor who completely misses the point,” L’Engle wrote in her journal.

And then, in early 1961, a mutual friend connected L’Engle to John C. Farrar. He was a co-founder of a publishing house called at the time Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy. Farrar said he’d take a look at L’Engle’s manuscript. So on Jan. 16, 1962, she dropped her writing off at the publisher’s office on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This time, a publisher accepted L’Engle’s book.

L’Engle’s manuscript became the book, A Wrinkle in Time. It came out on Jan. 1, 1962. The book won the 1963 John Newbery Medal, the premier prize in American children’s literature. To date, over 10 million copies of the book have been sold. And two movies based on the book have been made, including a 2018 version starring Oprah Winfrey.

L’Engle was born Nov. 29, 1918, in New York City. 

Nov. 30

Mark Twain

In the tiny, rural town of Florida, Mo. on Nov. 30, 1835, Jane Lampton Clemens gave birth to a baby boy. It was her sixth child. But this one was born while the bright tail of Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth for the first time in 75 years.

Jane and her husband, John Marshall, named their new baby Samuel Langhorne Clemens. In the years after Halley’s Comet’s 1835 visit, Sam Clemens became one of the most-read American writers of his time. Publishing under the pen name Mark Twain, Clemens wrote 28 books and many short stories. His most famous works are the novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Seventy-four years after Twain’s birth, Halley’s Comet drew close to Earth once again. Anticipation built more than a year before the comet’s return. People planned viewing parties, including U.S. President Howard Taft. But Mark Twain had a different reason to look forward to the comet’s return. As he told a reporter, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.”

The following year, on Apr. 20, 1910, Halley’s Comet once again became visible from Earth. The next day, Mark Twain died in his sleep.

Tayari Jones

One day in August 2017, Tayari Jones received a phone call. She answered it. On the other line, a voice said, “Hey, Girl. This is Oprah.” Those five words changed Jones’s life.

At the moment of Oprah’s phone call, Jones, born on Nov. 30, 1970, was the author of three published books. Her first two didn’t receive much attention. Her third, Silver Sparrow, earned her some royalties. The money was enough to pay for a trip, which the writer called her “book vacation.”

But everything changed with her fourth book, An American Marriage. Oprah called. She told Jones she was placing the novel in her book club. 

An American Marriage came out on Jan. 29, 2018. As she said she would, Oprah named the novel to her book club. The placement propelled An American Marriage onto bestseller lists. And then, President Barack Obama plugged the book on his Facebook page. Today, over 500,000 copies of An American Marriage are in print in over 24 countries. 

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Sources

William Blake

Louisa May Alcott

Madeleine L’Engle

Mark Twain

Tayari Jones