This Week in Literary History: Dec. 21-27

Recognizing the birthdays of David Sedaris, William Demby, and more

Welcome to winter and This Week in Literary History for Dec. 21-27. Your stories and list of notable literary births and events are below.

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The World Meets an Angsty Teenager Named Holden Caulfield

By Andrew Sanger

Holden Caulfield was born, so to speak, on Dec. 22, 1945. This date marks his first appearance in public. Caulfield didn't first appear in J.D. Salinger's seminal book The Catcher in the Rye, but in a short story titled "I'm Crazy," published in Collier's — a popular weekly magazine of the time. On that day, the world first met Caulfield in all his angst-ridden glory, and Salinger came one step closer to writing the book that would establish him as a household name for generations to come.

While "I'm Crazy" was the first published appearance of Holden Caulfield, the portrait of the rebellious teen had been floating around in Salinger's head for many years prior. Caulfield was the protagonist of a 1941 unpublished story of Salinger's titled "Am I Banging My Head Against the Wall?" officially dating Caulfield's inception to at least ten years before the release of The Catcher in the Rye

While The New Yorker had accepted this short story in 1941 — a massive relief for Salinger, who had already been rejected by the publication several times — the story ended up as an unintentional casualty of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although initially slated for a December 1941 release, following the U.S.'s entry into World War II, the editorial staff nixed Salinger's story, feeling its tone was too bleak and rebellious for a country going to war. 

Salinger continued writing throughout the war, during which he was drafted and was one of the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. During this time, Salinger continued to develop Holden and the other Caulfields while submitting to many publications back in the U.S. 

These wartime years were a formative period for Salinger as an artist, whose experiences during the war formed his identity as a writer and influenced him to create more of his classic characters, like the emotionally tortured Seymour Glass. During this period, Salinger also became acquainted with Ernest Hemingway. The two wrote to each other during and after the war, providing a source of inspiration for both men.  

While there is some speculation over the exact inspiration for Holden Caulfield, most signs point to Salinger himself as the likely answer. Like Caulfield, Salinger had been a promising but underachieving student who dropped out of two different universities. At one point, Salinger was even allegedly working on a play centered on Holden Caulfield and was intent on casting himself in the lead role. 

Despite the stroke of bad luck which caused "Am I Banging My Head Against the Wall?" to be dumped by The New Yorkerthe magazine eventually ran an edited version of the unpublished story in 1946 under the title, "Slight Rebellion off Madison." This publication marked another significant step in Caulfield's rise to fame (or infamy, depending on how you want to look at it). 

Ultimately, much of Salinger's early Caulfield-centric work ended up becoming the meat of The Catcher in the Rye. "I'm Crazy" served as the inspiration for the novel's early chapters at Caulfield's boarding school, albeit featuring a much more analytic and mature (relatively speaking) version of the iconic teenager. "Slight Rebellion off Madison" ended up serving as some of the novel's later events during which Holden meets up with Sally Hayes and takes her ice skating in the city. 

For many readers, the first published edition of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 was their first introduction into the intertwined minds of J.D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield. Little did those readers realize that this version of Caulfield was the painstaking result of a decade-long creative process of writing, rewriting, rejection, disappointment, and determination. The rest, as they say, is history. These days Caulfield's reputation precedes him, although his brand of teenage rebellion may come across as a bit quaint by our modern standards. 

Having been "born" in 1945, Holden Caulfield celebrates his 75th birthday this December. It's hard to imagine someone that age seeking out rebellion in the classic-Caulfield manner for which we loved (or hated) him. But at least we can turn back to any of those stories where Holden Caulfield is, and will always be a timeless, phony-hating 17.

Holden Caulfield

  • Holden Caulfield makes his first public appearance in the short story, “I’m Crazy,” published by Collier’s on Dec. 22, 1945.

Kenneth Rexroth: An anarchist with a penchant for classical, Asian poetic style

By Christine Kingery

On Oct. 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Allan Ginsberg first publicly read his famous poem, “Howl,” marking a pivotal moment in Beat history. 

In Michael Schumacher’s biography Dharma Lion, he wrote that “Jack Kerouac, sitting at the edge of the platform, pounded in accompaniment on a wine jug, shouting ‘GO!’ at the end of each long line. The crowd quickly joined him in punctuating Allen’s lines. By the time he had concluded, [Ginsberg] was in tears.” Jack Kerouac later fictionalized the event in his novel The Dharma Bums.

The five young poets who read works that night were all introduced by Kenneth Rexroth, a San Francisco poet who was a kind of literary father-figure and mentor to the younger poets. During the evening’s festivities, Rexroth acted as master of ceremonies. A counter-culture agitator and anarchist, Rexroth laid the groundwork for the Beat generation some ten years before the authors of the 1950s and 60s made the movement famous. 

As a key figure in the San Francisco literary scene, Rexroth maintained a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle. The Beat poets of the 1950s were vocal proponents against the government and were vehemently anti-establishment. But Rexroth formed his anarchist philosophies in the 1920s in Chicago, where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and participated in politically-charged readings and lectures. 

Rexroth was a conscientious objector during World War II, and he was actively involved with helping Japanese-Americans who the U.S. government forced into internment camps during the war. Rexroth spoke out against the camps at great personal risk to himself. He even arranged for Japanese-American libraries to be absorbed by California’s state library system so the works would be preserved and internees could check books out.

Rexroth became known as the “Godfather of the Beats”—a title he hated, despite his mentorship of that generation of poets. He was critical of the Beat movement, seeing them as prone to artistic excesses. 

However, Rexroth also saw that he and the Beats had mutual aims. They were united in their mutual antagonism to what Rexroth called “ruling convergence of interest—the business community, military imperialism, political reaction, the hysterical, tear and mud drenched guilt of the ex-Stalinist, ex-Trotskyist American intellectuals.” 

Rexroth founded most of the San Francisco literary infrastructure that lured Beat poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen to the Bay Area. These included the Pacifica Foundation’s public art radio station KPFA and the Poetry Center at San Francisco State College. 

Rexroth further supported the Beats by reviewing them in his weekly newspaper articles. Ironically, he eventually became disgruntled that the Beat poets were more successful than himself, although Rexroth was largely responsible for their success because of his promotions.

Rexroth was self-taught, orphaned at 14 years old, and raised on the streets of Chicago, where he encountered a bohemian, pre-war culture in which he actively participated. He only had five years of formal education, choosing instead to travel extensively across the U.S. and in Europe. 

As writer George Woodcock wrote of Rexroth, “His conversation was full of haphazard erudition, scientific, philological, historical, metaphysical, as well as literary. Out of this reading he developed a sense that all the world’s cultures were in a way inter-related and therefore mutually comprehensible, and that linguistic differences formed a barrier far less formidable than it is generally thought to be.” 

Despite scorning institutional education (calling academics “corn belt Metaphysicals and country gentlemen”), Rexroth taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s and went to Japan on a Fulbright fellowship in 1974.

He was a well-known translator of poetry written in Greek, Chinese, and Japanese, and these literary traditions infiltrated his poetic style. Rexroth wrote several verse plays that played upon Greek mythology, such as “Iphigenia,” “Phaedra,” “Berenike,” and “Hermaios.” Rexroth played with verse style and format, combining Greek mythological characters in lines written in Japanese style. 

Rexroth’s study of ancient philosophers’ thoughts is critical in understanding his evolution as a writer. Rexroth sought to achieve timeless themes, visions, and mystical enlightenment that speak to the human condition and the human experience amid cultural dysfunction. It’s no wonder that Rexroth was critical of the Beats, who wrote unstructured, off-the-cuff poems. The poetry Rexroth produced was refined and evolved from a classical, sophisticated style.

James Laughlin, Rexroths’ friend, and publisher cites Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) and The Signature of All Things (1950) as Rexroth’s best works, investigating “the ‘integral person’ who, through love, discovers his responsibility for all in a world of war, cold war, and nuclear terror.” These works outline Rexroth’s pacifist stance on World War II. 

In his later years, Rexroth won the 1975 Copernicus Award from the Academy of American Poets, and in 1977 he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Rexroth died in 1982 and is buried in Santa Barbara, Calif., on a cliff looking out at sea. Although Rexroth is best known as the Grandfather of the Beats and a mentor to that important group of poets, perhaps his greatest contribution was to bring Asian poetry to America through his translations and the way he incorporated those traditions throughout his work. 

Kenneth Rexroth: An anarchist with a penchant for classical, Asian poetic style

  • Born on Dec. 22, 1905, in South Bend, Ind.

  • Died on June 6, 1982, in Montecito, Calif.

A Writer Who Went to Europe Twice Before It Did the Trick

By Emily Quiles

William Demby would wander the halls of Carnegie Museum of Art at least once a week as a child. The almost 12-mile journey from his home in Pittsburgh to the museum brought him to a daydream state. For hours he would admire the modernist strokes of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. 

"So feverish had my lust to be creative become," Demby said in a 2008 interview. "I even began to paint my own versions of the abstract masterpieces I had seen in the museums." His experimental strokes of the brush took him to Europe. "I felt I could transform into anything I wanted: a writer, a painter, Joe Louis!"

At 19, in 1942, Demby was drafted into the U.S. Army. "In a matter of months, I found myself on a train headed for Oklahoma," he remembered. At the training camp, Demby learned how to operate an artillery piece, ride a horse, and drive a General Motors 6x6 truck.

"Suddenly, we are landing in Naples," Demby recalled. His dream to be in Europe was happening, except it looked different from what he imagined as a child. "Everything was destroyed… I've never seen such wanton destruction, a ghostly landscape of broken buildings." 

During his time in the Army, Demby wrote for the military newspaper Stars & Stripes. He served in the Army's 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated unit.

"And racial segregation! There was plenty of it," Demby said. "There hadn't been enough time to heal the wounds of segregation in the short time each commander had to train his troops for battle." 

Demby realized the soldiers reflected the U.S.'s social problems at large, yet it also helped unite his unit. "Only in the Army could Black people of all different cultural groupings and backgrounds live together and slowly begin to know each other, people from the South and people from the North," Demby said. 

Demby's war experience reshaped his life's perception, which was previously limited to Pittsburgh and his native West Virginia. Once he returned from the war, Demby bought some new clothes with the Army's money and visited his sister at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

Demby enrolled in Fisk on the GI Bill. "Everything that's said about Fisk is true," said Demby. "It was truly an elitist college with lots of great professors, especially in the arts." 

At Fisk, Demby learned among Harlem Renaissance survivors, including Aaron Douglas, Arna Bontemps, and John Work. "Those were the golden years," Demby explained, "Girls, jazz, existentialism, and lots of trial-starts at being a writer!"

After graduating in 1947, Demby moved back to Italy. "I took the train from Naples and went to Rome, where I was going to start my new life," he remembered. This time Demby was ready to experience the Italy he once imagined at the Carnegie Museum. "It was a good thing I went there," Demby said. "Rome was for the gritty life of the pure artist."

During his time in Rome, Demby worked as a journalist, screenwriter, and English translator for Italian cinema. He translated scripts for directors Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Michelangelo Antonioni. 

"They all came to me to translate scripts because I could do it in lightning speed," Demby said. "Whenever there was something I didn't understand in Italian, I would invent something. They laughed about it."

While in Rome, Demby wrote his first novel, Beetlecreek, published in 1950. It's about an outcast white man victimized by the nearby segregated Black town of Beetlecreek, W.V. Demby's story told of white society's injustices. "My sudden immersion and acceptance as an artist into Europe and its revolutionary post-war culture that Beetlecreek almost seemed to write itself," Demby said.

By the time Demby wrote his second book, The Catacombs (1965), he had refined his style into a surrealist blend of reality to fiction. The main character, named Bill Demby, writes a book about an actress named Doris. The book entwines real events taken from newspaper clippings and personal philosophical detours with fictitious scenarios.

"This was a very dangerous thing to do mainly because you become overly perceptive, and you're being constantly bombarded by things happening," Demby reflected on his process. 

Demby published a few novels, including King Comus, which came out in 2017, four years after Demby's death.

An interviewer asked Demby in 1971 how leaving the U.S. influenced his writing. The writer responded, "I don't think [the term expatriate is] valid anymore. Everyone moves from here to there and does his work when and how he can. Our commitment to what is happening now is not only in a commitment to America. This is the beauty of the age we are living in. Our commitment now is to humanity."

William Demby

  • Born on Dec. 25, 1922, in Pittsburgh, Penn.

  • Died on May 23, 2013, in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

David Sedaris Keeps Laughing Even Without His Usual Material

By Andria Kennedy

"I've talked to people who said, 'We've been home trapped together, and we're at each other's throats.' But in our case, we've never gotten along better. How am I supposed to write about that? I said to him the other day, 'I hope you die of coronavirus, so I can write about it.'"

Coming from most people, such words would be horrifying. But coming from humorist David Sedaris, you know they're said in jest (and far from serious).

However, for a man whose career centers around travel and public speaking, the pandemic has presented quite the challenge. Gone are the lengthy book tours to promote his newest book, The Best of Me, a collection of Sedaris's favorite essays, diary entries, and fictional pieces. In their place: FitBit competitions and a new kind of people-watching as Sedaris spends more time than ever with long-time partner Hugh Hamrick.

(And for any concerned Sedaris meant a single word of that statement, he followed it up with, "It's been fantastic, it really has. I was really afraid he'd get tired of me. Like this morning, I got up at 10:00, and at 10:30, Hugh said to me, 'I'm tired of you already.' So, I said, 'Okay, can we start over?' And we just started the day again.")

COVID-19 created challenges for many authors releasing books this year. How to get the word out to their readership without the usual outlet of a book tour and book signings? And while many switched to technological outlets, Sedaris stubbornly avoided any such thing. 

"My goal is to get through this without ever going on Zoom or FaceTime or Skype," Sedaris said. When pressed as to why Sedaris shrugs. "I just don't want to live in that world. I think it makes me a happy person that I'm not on social media." 

That's a shocking statement to many people, particularly in this isolating period. But Sedaris shakes his head. "I've never seen Twitter," Sedaris said. "I don't even know what it looks like. I just feel like I'd have to either choose to have a life or be on Twitter. I just don't see how you can do both."

The lack of human interaction has hampered David Sedaris in obtaining new material. His writing has always flowed from the world around him and his meetings with the general public. But lockdown restrictions have stemmed the possibilities. Now, Sedaris's material dwindles to store patrons - including a man who walked in shirtless and maskless (always a winning combination). 

Though one can't help but marvel over Sedaris's insight into the changing perception of this pandemic world: "The clerk said, 'Welcome in,'" Sedaris recalled. "Civilization as we know it ends, but 'Welcome in' survives? I realized I should have been grateful every day I didn't have to hear that."

Of course, the lack of book promoting platforms would never stop loyal David Sedaris fans from rushing to obtain his latest book. After all, readers have followed him from his days on NPR - before the wheels of social media existed. Unfortunately, they'll have to do without the coveted Sedaris story "SantaLand Diaries," as you won't find it in The Best of Me - at Sedaris's request. 

"That might have been other people's favorite, but it was never even in my top 100," Sedaris said. And he's prepared for the backlash the omission is sure to generate. "There is literally nothing you can print anymore that isn't going to generate a negative response. This, I believe, was brought on by the Internet. It used to be that you'd write a letter of complaint, then read it over, wondering, 'Is this really worth a twenty-five-cent stamp?' With the advent of email, complaining became free. Thus, people who were maybe a tiny bit offended could, at no cost whatsoever, let you know that they were never going to buy any of your books ever again!"

Is it any wonder David Sedaris prefers to disdain social media in all its forms?

Still, for a man "cheating" the system by walking after midnight to get ahead of his FitBit friends, Sedaris remains upbeat during this time of concern and isolation. "Comedy is tragedy plus time," Sedaris said. "I don't care to write something that's not funny, that's not going to get some laughs."

David Sedaris

  • Born on Dec. 26, 1956, in Johnson City, N.Y.


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Holden Caulfield

Kenneth Rexroth

William Demby

David Sedaris

Notable Literary Births & Events for

Dec. 21

  • James Lane Allen

  • Thomas Bracken

  • Heinrich Böll

  • Edward Hoagland

  • Gustave Kahn

  • Arnošt Lustig

  • Seichō Matsumoto

  • Anthony Powell

  • Albert Payson Terhune

  • Rebecca West

Dec. 22

  • Brian Daley

  • Charlotte Lamb

  • Roberta Leigh

  • Charles de Lint

  • Kenneth Rexroth

  • Edwin Arlington Robinson

  • Eduard Uspensky

  • Johan Sebastian Welhaven

  • Ken Whitmore

  • Holden Caulfield makes his first appearance in "I'm Crazy" in 1945.

Dec. 23

  • Megan Mayhew Bergman

  • Robert Bly

  • Carol Ann Duffy

  • Ezzat el Kamhawi

  • Manuel Lopes

  • Norman Maclean

  • Martin Opitz

  • Donna Tartt

  • Mathilde Wesendonck

Dec. 24

  • Matthew Arnold

  • Mary Higgins Clark

  • Barbara Comyns

  • George Crabbe

  • Dana Gioia

  • Adam Haslett

  • Henriette Roland Holst

  • Fritz Leiber

  • Adam Mickiewicz

  • Émile Nelligan

Dec. 25

  • William Demby

  • Charles Finger

  • Christopher Frayling

  • Sydney, Lady Morgan

  • Eve Pollard

  • Hilary Spurling

  • Dorothy Wordsworth

Dec. 26

  • René Bazin

  • Alejo Carpentier

  • Catherine Coulter

  • Jean Echenoz

  • Thomas Gray

  • Mirko Kovač

  • Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald

  • Liz Lochhead

  • David Sedaris

  • Jean Toomer

Dec. 27

  • Louis Bromfield

  • Alexandra Chang

  • Sebastian Haffner

  • Charles Olson

  • Wilfrid Sheed

  • Sarah Vowell

  • Carl Zuckmayer