This Week in Literary History: Jan. 4-10
Recognizing the birthdays of Elizabeth Strout, Zora Neale Hurston, and more
Happy 2021! Here’s your first This Week in Literary History for the new year, covering Jan. 4-10. Your list of notable literary births and events for this week is below.
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Tailor, Clerk, Struggler, Storyteller: The Life and Growth of A.E. Coppard
By Emily Quiles
At the witching hour of Midsummer’s Eve in 1883, A.E.(Alfred Edgard) Coppard and his mother leaned out of an open window to gaze up at the stars. “There!” pointed his mother as she saw a twinkle dart across the deep black sky. “Did you wish?” she asked her son.
“Yes,” he responded.
“Well, that’s it then,” she said as she closed the window. “Don’t tell me, and don’t tell anybody. Now off to bed!”
This fragmented memory from Coppard’s childhood, a wish, planted his realization of being a single piece that is part of a larger whole. Later, in the short stories he wrote, Coppard found beauty in the mundanity of life. Yet, he didn’t use writing as a source of expression until he was 41.
Coppard was born the son of a tailor and a housemaid in Kent, southeast England. “I came from nothing, and it may be I was never anything more than a contrivance for recording emotions I would fain have taken for my own, but could not -- life passed me by,” Coppard wrote in his first autobiography, My Hundredth Tale.
While Coppard had little formal education, he attended school until he was nine. “I could not fathom that science of numbers, and when a most hideous something called algebra made an appearance upon the rota I became, scholastically speaking, extinct,” Coppard wrote in his second autobiography, It’s Me, O Lord!.
Despite spending the latter half of his life surrounded by literary auras, grammar tormented Coppard’s earlier years. “I made a hash of verbs and adverbs,” he said. “Their analysis and concord, their moods and tenses; for pronouns and prepositions I had no liking, for nouns no love, passing and inflecting were pits of meaningless peril.”
Instead, Coppard’s parents expected him to follow his father’s footsteps to tailor the police and army uniforms. That all changed in 1887 when his father passed from tuberculosis. Coppard was nine, and shortly before his father’s death, the boy left school to care for his sick dad.
A year later, Coppard’s mother sent him to the East End of London, where he learned to tailor for a workshop in Whitechapel during the murders of Jack the Ripper. “It was there I lost childhood, innocence, schooling, and became acquainted with grief, starvation, poor clothes, and slums,” Coppard wrote.
From there, Coppard took on a series of odd jobs. He worked for an auctioneer, clerked for a merchant, a soap company, and an engineering firm.
During this time, Coppard became so addicted to literature “that I read even in the streets as I walked along.” He liked to read Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Robert Browning, and Walt Whitman. He hated John Dryden, disliked John Donne, “and got but a thimbleful of joy from Byron or Shelley.” Between work and reading, Coppard wrote short stories, inspired by his personal experiences.
After writing more than a dozen stories, Coppard wanted to make a living as a writer. So on All Fools Day, 1919, with £50 in his pocket, he decided to isolate himself in a cottage near Oxford. For three years, sustained mostly on raw carrots and apples, Coppard wrote poetry and short stories, including his first collection of tales, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, published exactly two years later, on All Fool’s Day, 1921.
Adam and Eve and Pinch Me showcased Coppard’s stream-of-conscious writing style, popular among writers at the time. The story tells of Gilbert Cannister, a writer who one moment is observing nature’s beauty, and then the next is ridden with jealousy after he thinks his wife is kissing another man. The duality of his experience tells of the separation of the spirit from the physical body.
Coppard’s showcasing of everyday trivialities makes his work so convincing. Meanwhile, Coppard also incorporated in his stories supernatural horror, or allegorical fantasy rooted deep within the dirt, toil, and everyday naturalism of the world.
“I was a poet by nature though without any poetic ability,” Coppard said. Yet, nearly a century later, A.E. Coppard’s popularity rests among writers such as Anton Chekhov, Thomas Hardy, H. E. Bates, and D. H. Lawrence.
Born on Jan. 4, 1878, in Folkestone, U.K.
Died on Jan. 13, 1957, in London.
How Elizabeth Strout Learned to ‘Just Make a Mess’
By Corinne Weaver
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout says that the secret to better writing is learning to embrace the terrible writing that one might produce.
Before Strout had a book published, she struggled to write as a young adult. In an interview with The Guardian, Strout admitted to sending stories to publishers only to have them denied. “I didn’t even get, ‘Try us again,’” Strout said. “I just got the basic ‘No.’”
It frustrated Strout to hear advice geared towards writers who said it takes ten years to get better at writing. She’d been trying for 15 years.
Then an editor from The New Yorker sent her a rejection letter that contained an element of hope. “I would send him about two stories a year,” Strout said. “I just came across one of the rejection letters, and he said, this isn’t good enough for us yet, but you should probably keep going because it’s better than 99.9 percent of what comes across my desk.”
Eventually, Strout finished what became her first successful book, Amy and Isabella, in 1998. Strout confessed that she knew her way around a sentence better after 15 years of writing. “I could get the sentence to go into that crevice,” she said. “I was very slow at getting up to that ability to have the sentences do what I needed them to do.”
Strout describes her writing style as messy. “I just make a mess,” she said. The author refuses to work in a linear style, choosing to write whole scenes instead.
Failure presents itself as an old friend. “You just have to fail,” Strout said while encouraging a young writer. “Believe me, I know that because I failed for years and years and years. I couldn’t believe how long I kept failing. I really was a little bit intrigued by it.”
The failure taught Strout how to deal with the stress of being a published author later, however. “The truth is that even though those years were very frustrating, I’m awfully glad I was not known earlier in my life as a writer,” she said. “Because it just wouldn’t have been helpful for me. By the time my writing was reaching its stride, I was old enough to not let [the public part of it] affect me.”
Since that time, Strout embraced terrible writing as a stepping stone to better writing. Now she uses it to get over writer’s block. “The way I have always dealt with writer’s block is to just keep writing terrible stuff,” Strout said. “I never stop writing and I think that’s a better form of writer’s block than stopping altogether: to just write really badly until it gets better.”
Strout's process works. Since Amy and Isabelle, she's published novels such as Olive Kitteridge and My Name Is Lucy Barton. And Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Born on Jan. 6, 1956, in Portland, Maine
Zora Neale Hurston Found Spectacular in the Everyday
By Corinne Weaver
Authors try to make their characters stand out from the rest of the crowd. Many heroes and heroines in novels distinguish themselves from their ordinary background by doing something extraordinary. But for authors like Zora Neale Hurston, the unexceptional held more stories and promise than the uncommon occurrences.
Born in Alabama and raised in Florida, Hurston championed the dialect of the South. Her colleagues in the Harlem Renaissance belittled her efforts to capture and preserve the language used by Black people in the early 20th century.
Publishers often agreed with Hurston’s contemporaries: her nonfiction interview with the last man to be captured in West Africa and sold into slavery did not get published until decades after her death. Hurston’s insistence on maintaining the dialect used by her interview subject kept publishers from releasing the book. When Viking Press offered to publish the book if its author turned the vernacular into standard English, Hurston refused.
The lives of and obstacles faced by Black Americans fueled Hurston’s work. She spent time in sawmills and workplaces across the South collecting Black workers’ songs and stories. Yet, she lamented the publishing industry’s lack of interest in such writing.
“The fact that there is no demand for incisive and full-dress stories around Negroes above the servant class is indicative of something of vast importance to this nation,” Hurston once wrote. “The average American just cannot conceive of it, and would be apt to reject the notion, and publishers and producers take the stand that they are not in business to educate, but to make money.”
Hurston maintained her approach to telling the stories of everyday Black Americans. Doing so didn’t make Hurston famous in her time. But many today recognize this Harlem Renaissance writer’s significance. Hurston’s best-known book is the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Zora Neale Hurston
Born on Jan. 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Ala.
Died on Jan. 28, 1960, in Fort Pierce, Fla.
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“Adam & Eve & Pinch Me.” A.E. Coppard. Golden Cockerel Press. 1921.
“Eco-fiction.” John Stadler. Washington Square Press. 1971.
“Flynn: A Study of A.E. Coppard and His Short Fiction.” Frank Edmund Smith.
Loyola University Chicago. 1973.
“It’s Me, O Lord.” A.E. Coppard. Methuen. 1957.
“The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard.” A.E. Coppard. Alfred A. Knopf. 1951.
“Elizabeth Strout interview: from years of rejection to the Pulitzer prize and bestseller lists.” Hermione Hoby. The Guardian. Feb. 19, 2016.
“‘Keep writing and don’t ever stop’: Takeaways from Elizabeth Strout’s visit to Bates.” Emily McConville. Bates Edu. Oct. 25, 2019.
“‘She just showed up’: Elizabeth Strout on the return of Olive Kitteridge.” Catherine Conroy. The Irish Times. Nov. 2, 2019.
“Elizabeth Strout on Writers’ Block, the Art of Edward Hopper, and More.” LitHub. Oct. 15, 2019.
Zora Neale Hurston
“A Work by Zora Neale Hurston Will Finally Be Published.” Alexandra Alter. The New York Times. May 1, 2018.
“Zora Neale Hurston’s Individualism.” John J. Miller. National Review. Dec. 5, 2019.
“Zora Neale Hurston performed groundbreaking work in Jacksonville.” Karassa Stinchcomb. The Florida-Times Union. June 9, 2019.
“5 Ways Zora Neale Hurston's Work Influenced Black Literature And Black Womanhood.” Malaika Jabali. Essence. May 14, 2018.
“Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Tells the Story of the Slave Trade’s Last Survivor.” Anna Diamond. Smithsonian Mag. May 2, 2018.
“What White Publishers Won’t Print.” Zora Neale Hurston. Negro Digest. April 1950.
Notable Literary Births & Events for Jan. 4-10
A. E. Coppard
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
E. L. Doctorow
Louise Imogen Guiney
Zora Neale Hurston
Francisco González Bocanegra
John G. Neihardt
Karen Tei Yamashita
Simone de Beauvoir
Walter R. Brooks
Lizette Woodworth Reese
Anne Rivers Siddons
Kelli Russell Agodon
Sir Charles G.D. Roberts
Thomas Paine publishes "Common Sense" pamphlet in 1776.