This Week in Literary History: Dec. 7-13

Recognizing the birthdays of Emily Dickinson, Bill Bryson, and more

Welcome to a new edition of This Week in Literary History for Dec. 7-13. Your list of notable literary births and events for this week is below. Have a wonderful week!

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Willa Cather Brought the Prairie and Its Pioneers to Life

By Andria Kennedy

"'Bigness' is the subject of my story," Willa Cather once wrote. "The West always paralyzes me a little. When I am away from it, I remember only the tang on the tongue. But when I come back, [I] always feel a little of the fright I felt when I was a child. I always feel afraid of losing something. I never can entirely let myself go with the current; I always fight it just a little. It is partly the feeling that there are so many miles between you and anything, and partly the fear that the everlasting wind may make you contented and put you to sleep. I used to always be sure I'd never get out, that I would die in a cornfield. Now I know that I will get out again, but I still get attacks of fright." 

Cather's words harken back to a time when the American West was fresh and new. Cather paints a picture of open spaces, endless prairie stretches, and room to lose oneself in nature. They're the same words she crafted into her most famous novels, such as My Ántonia and O Pioneers!. Cather developed a devoted following that continues today, as seen in the National Willa Cather Center's formation and the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie in Red Cloud, Neb., Cather's childhood hometown.

Willa Cather offered a dramatic alternative to the male mythology of the "Old West." Rather than slouching cowboys, she wrote of immigrant families and pioneer women finding their place in the growing country. She embraced Nebraska's natural world in her books as much as her characters, engendering a love for the rolling hills her fans flock to even in the modern era. 

With such glowing descriptions, such as that seen in A Wagner Matinee, how can a true nature lover resist: "The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer bought than those of war."

Cather's family moved to Nebraska when she was a child, and she soaked up the stories of the families around them. The culture differed from their original home in Virginia, and Willa found herself surrounded by European immigrants, newly come to the United States. 

Cather admitted that the exposure to this global influence set her upon the path of a writing career: "Few of our neighbors were Americans - most of them were Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and Bohemians. I grew fond of these immigrants - particularly the old women, who used to tell me of their home country. I used to think them underrated and wanted to explain them to their neighbors. Their stories used to go round and round my head at night. This was, for me, the initial impulse. I didn't know any writing people. I had an enthusiasm for a kind of country and a kind of people, rather than ambition."

While a shameless perfectionist, demanding precise book covers from her publisher, Willa Cather felt no particular drive for fame or notoriety, and she scorned the dramatic praise of her critics. She wrote of the world around her and nothing more. She wrote a letter to her brother following the publication of My Antonia, lamenting, "A man in The Nation writes that 'My Antonia exists in an atmosphere of its own - an atmosphere of pure beauty.' Nonsense, it's the atmosphere of my grandmother's kitchen, and nothing else."

Such correspondence, composed of over 3,000 known letters, has long tormented historians and readers alike. Cather refused to allow the publication of her communication following her death. The absence of such readily-accessible material has led to speculation of everything from Cather's sexuality to her perfectionism. In some cases, the debates have overshadowed the discussion of her writing. 

However, with the passing of her last relative, her wishes fell to the wayside. In 2013, Knopf released a 700-word collection of Cather's correspondence, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather.

Whether you feel Willa Cather's wishes should have remained honored, or you salivated over the chance to devour her handwritten words at long last, this figure of American history retains her place among the swaying prairie grass. Her words dance around us, reminding us of the truth - in both her books and her letters: "You can never get it through people's heads that a story is made out of an emotion or an excitement, and is NOT made out of the legs and arms and faces of one's friends or acquaintances."

Willa Cather

Bill Bryson Went From Failing Student to Stellar Scientific Communicator

By Andrew Sanger

It’s difficult to adequately describe what kind of writer Bill Bryson is in a sentence, and a paragraph or more may not even be enough. Suffice it to say that if there’s any living writer who can claim to have written a bit about everything, then he’s the guy. 

Bryson's oeuvre leaps from genre to genre, and while you may feel the urge to say he’s mainly a travel writer, you would still need to mention his written work on science, linguistics, and history to give him the proper due. If there’s one thing that can be said to span the gaps of his diverse subject matter, it would be his ever-present humor, wit, and joy of exploring the unknown. 

Bryson originally hails from Des Moines, Iowa, but has resided in the United Kingdom since 1977. While he’s written several books that have earned him well-deserved acclaim, such as Notes on a Small Island and The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, both books about his travels in the U.K. and the U.S., respectively, his intellectual journey to writing A Short History of Nearly Everything is just as fascinating and unlikely. Bryson is a self-professed amateur when it comes to the scientific, which makes it all the more shocking that many herald this book as one of the most outstanding popular science books ever written, up there with the works of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan.

At first glance, Bryson does not seem like the right guy to write a book on sciences, much less a book that ties together hundreds of years of scientific discovery and progress. In his 2006 memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, he regales the reader with stories of his rambunctious childhood in Des Moines. It’s hardly the portrait of a straight-A student, and from the sounds of it, none of his teachers would have pinned Bryson to be a future Descartes Prize recipient. 

In the book itself, Bryson laments the quality of science education he received as a kid, citing a “mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting.” 

Nevertheless, Bryson says that he “had this conviction that, although I had been a terrible student of science in school, I was certain that there must be some level at which even I can engage with science.” That conviction is what led him to the four-year undertaking that would become A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Bryson’s biggest challenge, and most significant accomplishment, was to make the book accessible to readers who were as ignorant as he was at the outset of the project. However, in retrospect, Bryson sees his lack of knowledge and willingness to write about the unfamiliar as one of his biggest virtues. 

“The one advantage that I had when writing the book was ignorance,” Bryson said in an interview, adding that it led him to discover ways to communicate the complicated subject matter in such a way that he could understand it himself. This modest approach to his writing has paid off for Bryson since he’s since won numerous awards in the field of science communication and has even had one named for him by the Royal Society of Chemistry.  

The book’s not only been a success with layman readers, such as myself but has also received a significant amount of recognition within the scientific community for its accuracy and readability. Bryson earned several prestigious awards, and a position as an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society, making him the first non-Brit to win that honor. 

From a failing science student to a member of the Royal Society, Bill Bryson now finds himself inextricably involved in the world of science. His most recent book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, signaled his return to the scientific, this time focusing on the strange world of human anatomy. Reading one, or both, of these books goes to show how much the world needs a writer like Bill Bryson, who is willing to ask the most complicated questions imaginable and make the answers understandable — and hilarious — for the rest of us.

Bill Bryson

  • Born on Dec. 8, 1951, in Des Moines, Iowa

Grace Paley, an Activist-Writer Who Found Her Voice

By Emily Quiles

Before Grace Paley was a published writer, she spent most afternoons in the park. “I had my kids when I was about twenty-six, twenty-seven,” she told The Paris Review back in 1992. “I was hanging out a lot. I was kind of lazy.” Paley mentioned she also worked part-time at Columbia University as a typist.

“I say lazy, but of course, it was kind of exhausting running after two babies,” she added. “Thank God I was lazy enough to spend all that time in Washington Square Park. If I hadn’t spent that time in the playground, I wouldn’t have written a lot of those stories.”

Paley was referring to her work in the 1980s to block New York City’s proposal to build a road through Washington Square Park, which she won. Paley typed her stories at her workplace and the Greenwich Village PTA office. 

As America approached the second wave of feminism, the playground setting and work routine gave Paley a dynamic view of women. This perspective influenced her to explore the lives of ordinary women in her work. “She had a grasp of the importance of feminist insights without being a very ideological feminist,” author, illustrator, and childhood friend, Vera Williams said.

The youngest child of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Paley was born on Dec. 11, 1922. She grew up in The Bronx, N.Y., and spoke three languages – Yiddish, Russian, and English. This linguistic background helped her pick up all three tongues’ rhythm and influenced her stories, which tend to reflect, as she said, the “shouts and murmurs of secular Yiddishkeit.”

Paley’s parents’ journey to America was another key influence on her writing. “I was very entranced by my father and my mother’s histories,” Paley said in the documentary titled Grace Paley: Collected Shorts. “I considered them very heroic and was full of admiration for them.”

From the 1950s to the 90s, Paley established herself within conferences and rallies over the war in Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, apartheid in South Africa, and the Iraq War. “I’ve been thinking about how to live in a world without war nearly all my life, as a matter of fact,” she told PBS journalist Gary Gilson in 1984. “I just think that most people aren’t thinking about that.”

In Feb. 1979, Paley protested on the White House lawn, carrying a banner that read “No Nuclear Weapons – No Nuclear Power – U.S. or U.S.S.R” and distributed leaflets with a similar message. She and two other writers were arrested and fined.

To supplement her activism, Paley taught creative writing at three schools in the New York City area, Sarah Lawrence College, City College, and Columbia University.

Paley encouraged her students to develop their writing voices, similar to how she found hers - derived from family life and literary traditions. “What I’m trying to do,” Paley told The New York Times in 1978, “is to remind students they have two ears. One is the ear that listens to their ordinary life, their family and the street they live on, and the other is the tradition of English literature.”

When asked the most challenging part of teaching a creative writing class, Paley’s response was, “It’s trying to keep a class of bright kids dumb.”

Paley’s published works include three volumes of short stories: The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985). In 1994, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published her Collected Stories, a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Paley is also known for her poetry volumes, including Leaning Forward (1985) and New and Collected Poems (1991).

Grace Paley

  • Born on Dec. 11, 1922, in The Bronx, N.Y.

  • Died on Aug. 22, 2007, in Thetford, Vt.

The Amherst Eccentric with Modern Appeal

By Christine Kingery

American poet Emily Dickinson was born on Dec. 10, 1830, in Amherst, Mass. She is one of the nation’s most-read and beloved poets today; her themes and verse speak as powerfully to modern readers as they did to those in her own time. 

Although she knew little literary success during her lifetime, Dickinson had absolute confidence in her capabilities. Her peculiar nature and mysterious background have enchanted researchers and readers alike for nearly two centuries as they have explored her writing to answer the question: Who exactly was Emily Dickinson?

Dickinson grew up in a household of powerful personalities—herself included—and she never ranged far from her childhood home during her lifetime. She rarely spent time far from Amherst, and those trips became fewer as she aged. 

Dickinson’s father, Edward, served as Amherst College treasurer and statesman. At home, Edward was a tyrant. “His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists,” wrote Dickinson about her father. He was overprotective to the extreme. And his presence in Dickinson’s life most certainly led to her increasing reclusiveness. She wasn’t afraid of intimate relationships despite her father, and her life was rich with longtime friendships. The top of that friendship list was her childhood friend, Susan Gilbert, who married Dickinson’s brother, Austin. 

The mystery of Emily Dickinson—the “Amherst eccentric”—has unfolded slowly. In 1998 The New York Times revealed that much of Dickinson’s poetry was dedicated to or was about Susan. However, Dickinson’s first transcriber, Mabel Loomis Todd, a local woman and editor who had a longtime affair with Austin, obliterated those references. 

Dickinson compares her love for Susan to “Dante’s love for Beatrice, Swift’s for Stella, and Mirabeau’s for Sophie de Ruffey.” Of Susan, Dickinson writes: 

“To own a Susan of my own
Is of itself a Bliss -- 
Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord, 
Continue me in this!” (1401)

Modern readers have latched on to Dickinson’s undefined sexuality, exploiting and exploring the relationship in the 2019 Apple TV show Dickinson, where Emily and Susan explore a doomed romance together in the setting of magic realism. In reality, love letters survive that indicate Dickinson explored passionate romantic relationships with men she knew, although exactly with whom has been another mystery. Dickinson refers to this mystery man (or men) as “Master” in three surviving letters, such as this: 

“Say I may wait for you […] I waited a long time—Master—but I can wait more—wait till my hazel hair is dappled […] I want to see you more—Sir—than all I wish for in this world…Could you come to new England this summer […] Would you like to come—Master?”

Dickinson was drawn to men of strong will and intellect and who were also unapproachable because of marriage or geography. The correlation of these types of men with Dickinson’s father has not escaped modern day psychoanalysts.

To the extent that Dickinson’s health problems contributed to her reclusiveness is unknown, but her poetry has illustrated her fear of draughty places and sick households. (“I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town,” Dickinson wrote of her agoraphobia.) She died of what was known as Bright’s disease (a historical classification of kidney disease), followed by a stroke. Recent scholars have explored her writings to find proof of everything from bipolar, agoraphobia, seasonal affective disorder, anorexia, and depression. Dickinson writes of her illness: 

“My first well Day—since 
many ill— 
I asked to go abroad,
And take the Sunshine in 
my hands
And see the things in Pod—” (574)

Whether Dickinson wanted to be published during her lifetime is another contention point among scholars and one that’s framed by 20th-century gender discussions. Some analysts have determined that Dickinson did want to publish, but being female in the Victorian era prevented her. 

Certainly, female authors deeply influenced Dickinson with their publication struggles, including George Elliott and the Brontë sisters. Letters Dickinson wrote to literary critic T.W. Higginson also support this idea, as she begged him, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” In turn, he praised her work but refused to publish her poetry until Mabel Loomis Todd enlisted his help after Dickinson’s death in 1886. 

Contemporary critics claim the opposite, arguing that Dickinson had chosen not to publish out of fear of the price she would pay in terms of privacy and control of her time. Publisher Thomas Niles broached Dickinson on the subject of publication, to which she avoided answering. 

Because of the mysteries surrounding Emily Dickinson, scholars continue to explore her expansive works to solve these questions. She appears to have been born centuries ahead of her time, allowing modern readers to extrapolate their interpretations of her themes of sexuality, religion, death with present-day context.  

Emily Dickinson

  • Born on Dec. 10, 1830, in Amherst, Mass.

  • Died on May 15, 1886, in Amherst, Mass.


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Willa Cather

Bill Bryson

Grace Paley

Emily Dickinson

Notable Literary Births & Events for

Dec. 7

  • Abū-Sa'īd Abul-Khayr

  • Paul Adam

  • Tatamkhulu Afrika

  • Leigh Brackett

  • Joyce Cary

  • Willa Cather

  • Allan Cunningham

  • Anne Fine

  • Lucy Hughes-Hallett

  • Intizar Hussain

  • Susan Isaacs

  • Christopher Nicole

  • Rosemary Rogers

  • Akiko Yosano

Dec. 8

  • Hervey Allen

  • John Banville

  • Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

  • Bill Bryson

  • Rob Byrnes

  • Carmen Martín Gaite

  • Nikos Gatsos

  • Bob Greene

  • Marcus Lee Hansen

  • Horace

  • Jakov Ignjatović

  • Nasir Kazmi

  • Amanda McKittrick Ros

  • Delmore Schwartz

  • James Tate

Dec. 9

  • Léonie Adams

  • Jerome Beatty, Jr.

  • Joan Blos

  • Ashleigh Brilliant

  • Jean de Brunhoff

  • Joel Chandler Harris

  • Ki Longfellow

  • Joe McGinniss

  • Eloise Jarvis McGraw

  • John Milton

  • Laura Salverson

  • Jonathan Sumption

  • Joanna Trollope

Dec. 10

  • María Bibiana Benítez

  • Philip R. Craig

  • Emily Dickinson

  • Cornelia Funke

  • Rumer Godden

  • Alfred Kreymborg

  • Carolyn Kizer

  • Clarice Lispector

  • George MacDonald

  • Jacquelyn Mitchard

Dec. 11

  • Naguib Mahfouz

  • Thomas McGuane

  • Grace Paley

  • Diana Palmer

  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn

  • Ayelet Waldman

  • Keith Waldrop

Dec. 12

  • Helen Dunmore

  • Gustave Flaubert

  • Vasily Grossman

  • Hans Keilson

  • Sophie Kinsella

  • Patrick O'Brian

  • Lola Ridge

  • Ahmad Shamloo

Dec. 13

  • Alan Bullock

  • William Drummond of Hawthornden

  • Heinrich Heine

  • R.A. MacAvoy

  • Kenneth Patchen

  • Don Roff

  • Jean Rouaud

  • Leonard Weisgard

  • James Wright