This Week in Literary History: Nov. 30-Dec. 5

Recognizing the births of George Saunders, Joan Didion, and more

Welcome to a new edition of This Week in Literary History from Bidwell Hollow. Below are your stories and notable literary births and events for Nov. 30-Dec. 5.


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George Saunders Wonders What the Fox Says

By Andria Kennedy

"I think it's fair to say nobody gets into art to be 'acceptable,' to be 'pretty good,' or 'fine.' We all get into it for that grandiose reason of wanting to break somebody's heart or do some really beautiful thing. Those actually require some radical decision-making at certain points in the process. I think those decisions tend to come in response to the way certain kinds of writing feel to you." 

These words belong to George Saunders - the famed short story author - and any fan of his work understands where he's coming from. Saunders's writing bounces between fantastic, futuristic, and abstract, as is seen in his newest book, Fox 8. Every story springs forth from a different feeling, emotion, or turn of phrase.

Some writers choose to work with an idea before starting their work. They plot around a central core principal. Saunders dismisses this process. 

"It's a mistake to think that a story is a result of ideas," Saunders said. "I don't think I've ever written a good story that came out of an idea, really. Or if I start out that way, I abandon it quickly. A story is actually a system of meaning that creates meaning by reacting to itself. In other words, you don't actually need an external idea to write a story; you need an inciting something or other. For me, that can be a phrase or vague idea of a theme park or whatever. Sometimes it's just a diction I want to use; I just want to talk in a certain voice."

Fox 8 is the culmination of that "certain voice." The poor illiterate fox's diction is cobbled together from what he overhears outside the window of his adopted "yuman" family. The book was nothing more than a curious thought experiment for Saunders: Is it possible to resensitize readers to violence? 

In an age when even children's shows are rife with simulated battles and glitter-gore, Saunders wanted to shock and reawaken us to the reality of our world - in the form of a simple creature writing in phonetic spelling. A compelling story and concept from the man whose "What I regret most in my life are my failures in kindness" Syracuse University commencement speech went viral in 2013.

Saunders isn't attempting to "save the world" through his prose, however. When questioned whether authors should insert meanings into their work, he shakes his head. 

"When I say that fiction shouldn't be didactic, I don't mean that it shouldn't or can't have political or moral-ethical heft," Saunders said. "I'm saying that stories shouldn't exist as too-easy proofs for one's pre-existing beliefs. And this isn't a moral statement by me or an aesthetic credo - it's more of owner's-manual stuff: a story like that simply won't work." 

When pushed further, Saunders elaborated. "I don't think fiction exists to demonstrate ethics, or advocate for certain actions," he said. "I think it exists to remind us of the complexity of living. And the beauty. And the horror. My favorite English phrase is 'on the other hand.' Fiction does a lot of that. It 'on-the-other-hands' us into a state of confusion and uncertainty that is very holy and very hard to achieve and sustain."

Saunders embraces every character with equal care and generosity. His attention to detail prompts his readers to open their hearts and minds to those antagonists we'd otherwise shun and despise. 

"I guess I believe in the idea that love equals attention and vice versa," Saunders said. "So if we pay enough attention to a fictional character, even if he's a total schmuck, the resulting piece of prose will be an act of love (in its highest and best sense) toward him."

This is why you connect with every character in George Saunders's stories. They reach you personally, even a poor, illiterate fox sitting outside the window, trying desperately to make sense of the "yuman" world

George Saunders

  • Born on Dec. 2, 1958, in Amarillo, Texas.


Joan Didion Broke the Mold of a Post-World War II Woman

By Emily Quiles

A woman believes to be freezing to death in the arctic night, only to find when day breaks that she is in the Sahara desert. Before lunch, she dies of a heat stroke. “I have no idea what turn of a 5-year-old’s mind could have prompted so insistently ironic and exotic a story,” said Joan Didion in the documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold”.

This storyline was the plot of Didion’s first entry scribed inside of her Big 5 blue notebook, given by her mother “with the sensible suggestion I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing my thoughts.” As a child, Didion was inclined to play and entwine herself into physical and mental extremes, “which has dogged me into adult life,” she continued.

At six at the start of World War II, Didion’s early education came to a halt. Her father was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and so the family moved with him to military bases across the county.

“Well there was no place to live during World War II around army bases or airfields,” Didion explained in an interview for the American Academy of Achievement. “I remember in Fort Lewis” – the first base they moved to – “my mother going in every single day, to the army housing office, to see if there was a room.”

She also remembered the communal tubs in the many hotel rooms at which they stayed. “My mother would empty an entire bottle of Pine-Sol disinfectant every time she gave us a bath,” Didion laughed.

Didion explained that her childhood experiences had a great influence on her. “It made me perpetually feel like an outsider,” Didion explained. “It also very rapidly punctured the idea that I was smarter than other people” – she didn’t get the opportunity for a formal education until the fourth grade.

“There were certain things that I missed, like subtraction,” Didion continued. “I still have trouble subtracting.”

Instead, Didion read everything she could get her hands on. “I would go to the library and just take things off of the shelf,” she said. “My mother had to sign a piece of paper saying I could read adult books.”

Didion learned she had a natural inclination for biographies. “I was crazy about reading them because it told how I could go from the helpless place I was in, to being Katharine Cornell, for say.”

Her favorite author was Ernest Hemmingway. “Those sentences just knocked me out,” Didion said. She even taught herself to type by rewriting Hemingway’s punctuation and stylistic tone. Over time, his written rhythms got stuck in her head. 

One snowbound winter at an Army base in Colorado Springs, Colo., while on break during her senior year at the University of California, Berkeley, Didion flipped through Vogue magazine with her mother. Didion’s mom pointed out an announcement for Vogue’s writing competition for senior college students, Prix de Paris. First prize, a job in Paris or New York.

“‘You could win that,’ my mother said. ‘You could win that and live in Paris, or New York, wherever you wanted,” Didion remembered. “But definitely you could win it.’”

“So low and behold,” Didion said. “I entered it, and I did win it.” 

Didion picked up her bags and left for the chilly drift of New York. “It was very thrilling to me, naturally,” Didion said. “When I first saw New York, I was 20. And it was summertime, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct programmed by all the movies I’d ever seen

and all the songs I’d ever heard sung and the stories I’d read about New York informed me it would never be quite the same again.” 

In fact, it never was. Didion started her literary reputation at Vogueand broke through the industry’s norms for a post-World War II woman. Instead of writing articles on makeup and beauty standards, Didion wrote thoughtful, personal pieces.

After a day’s work at the magazine, she would come home, cook dinner, and continued writing her first novel, Run, River.

“I didn’t have any real clear picture of how to do it,” Didion said. “So, I would just do parts of it. And then I would just pin up these parts on the walls of my apartment.”

Didion has refined her writing process since. According to her current editor, Shelley Wanger, “Joan’s a complete perfectionist. If she’s thinking about something and feels she’s stuck, she’ll put it in the freezer. That’s not a metaphor. She would put the manuscript in the freezer, in a bag, and then go back to it.”

Didion has put out five works of fiction, including Play It as It Lays and A Book of Common Prayer, and 12 essay collections. Her best known include Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and The Year of Magical Thinking. U.S. President Barack Obama awarded Didion a National Medal of the Arts in 2013, and she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2007.

Joan Didion

  • Born on Dec. 5, 1934, in Sacramento, Calif.


Calvin Trillin Writes a Lifelong Love Letter

By Christine Kingery

Calvin Trillin was in love. I know this because almost everything he writes is about Alice, his wife of 36 years before she passed away in 2001. Actually, most things Trillin writes are about something else entirely, but he weaves Alice into the story somehow. 

Or, Trillin has a forward about Alice. Or, he asked Alice to edit the story. In the end, everything he writes has some connection to Alice. 

Calvin Trillin is an American journalist, humorist, food writer, poet, memoirist, and novelist. His works have appeared in Time magazine, The New Yorker, Moment magazine, The Nation, and many other publications. He's the winner of the 2012 Thurber Prize for American humor and is a 2013 New York Writer's Hall of Fame inductee.

Many themes resonate through Trillin's works—like food. He really likes food—but Alice permeates most of his works, including off-beat novels like Tepper Isn't Going Out (2001), which is about the delights and parking challenges in Manhattan. (In the book's dedication, he writes, "I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I write everything for Alice.") 

Trillin carries these works off with often self-deprecating humor, grace, and literary style. The jocular way he incorporates this kind of gonzo-journalism, combined with his piece-mealed introduction of his family members and close friends, has earned him a solid following of fans who search his writing out no matter which magazine publishes it. 

Many, including Trillin himself, compared Calvin and Alice's relationship to that of George Burns and Gracie Allen. It seems a little old-fashioned, but there are plenty of contemporary TV equivalents: Lois and Hal from "Malcolm In the Middle," Homer and Marge from the "Simpsons," or Cliff and Clair from "The Cosby Show." All feature a goofy, not-quite-grounded-in-reality father who is supported by the stern, steadfast, intelligent wife. 

Calvin wrote so much about Alice over the years that when she died, readers sent an outpouring of letters of love and condolences to Trillin, sharing that they felt like they knew Alice. 

"I got a lot of letters like the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought, 'But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?'" Calvin said. 

Calvin admits that the Alice he portrayed in his writings was a mere caricature of who she was and that the real Alice was much more than he described in his humor columns. However, he admits that while his readers "may not have known her…they know how I felt about her."

After Alice died, Calvin wrote About Alice, a novel that came out in 2006. In that book, Calvin describes the secret Alice that readers didn't know. An off-Broadway play based on the book debuted in 2019.

Calvin describes a speech he once gave in San Francisco, where an audience member asked him how Alice felt about the way Calvin portrayed her in his writing. 

"I said that she thought the portrayal made her sound like what she called 'a dietitian in sensible shoes,'" Calvin said. "Then the same questioner asked if Alice was in the audience, and, when I said she was, he asked if she'd mind standing up. Alice stood. As usual, she looked smashing. She didn't say anything. She just leaned over and took off one of her shoes—shoes that looked like they cost about the amount of money required in some places to tide a family of four over for a year or two—and, smiling, waved it in the air." 

The "real" Alice was smart, but funny also. She was charitable but had a penchant for quality clothes and nice hotel rooms. Alice saw herself as a brainiac and was very pretty. 

Alice was a mother first and foremost, a wife, and a daughter. She was a longtime board member and volunteer at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and a vocal advocate for eliminating smoking from public spaces in New York City. Alice's advocacy stemmed from her lung cancer diagnosis—a disease she kept at bay for 25 years.

Although Calvin has written about matters of serious import, such as coverage of race relations in 1960s America or the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission in the 1960s and 1970s, his humorous writings made a more profound cultural impact. Through Calvin's wit and wisdom, a whole generation of readers learned a lot about marriage, life, love, and, most recently, about grief.  

As Calvin contemplated her final death post-lung cancer diagnosis, he wrote, "I know what Alice, the incorrigible and ridiculous optimist, would have said about a deal that allowed her to see her girls grow up: 'Twenty-five years! I'm so lucky!' I try to think of it in those terms, too. Some days I can, and some days I can't."

Alice's death puts a new perspective on the collective works of Calvin Trillin. During her life, Alice merely is a character in his articles and novels, appearing here-and-there, offering a foil to Calvin's hair-brained protagonist-self. However, after her death, Calvin's collective work has become something much more powerful: a life-long love-letter to Alice.

Calvin Trillin

  • Born on Dec. 5, 1935, in Kansas City, Mo.


A Poet Who Now Lives Among the Trees

By Andrew Sanger

Alfred Joyce Kilmer, known better as Joyce Kilmer, was an American poet most famous for his short poem “Trees,” first published in 1914. Although he’s no longer a household name, Kilmer’s work was once well known and widely published during his time. 

Tragically, Kilmer died on a battlefield in France during World War I at the age of 31, leaving us to wonder what else Kilmer could have accomplished if he’d had the chance to continue writing. But, despite his short life, he still managed to leave a mark in the history of American poetry.

Kilmer was born in 1886 in New Brunswick, N.J. His father, Fred Kilmer, was the lead scientist at Johnson & Johnson (where he invented their baby powder) and brought young Joyce up as an Episcopalian. However, Kilmer later converted to Catholicism as an adult. 

Faith played a huge role in Kilmer’s life and writing, and his Catholicism is a core part of his identity as a poet today. As an adult, Kilmer found work as a book reviewer and a dictionary author, earning 5 cents per written definition, but he continued working on his poetry.

By the time World War I broke out, Kilmer had already published two volumes of poetry, including Trees and Other Poems, which firmly established him in the literary world. However, he put his poetic aspirations aside when he enlisted to fight in the war. He joined the famous 69th Infantry Regiment, called the “Fighting Sixty-Ninth,” where he worked in military intelligence, mainly as a scout. 

Kilmer distinguished himself as a soldier who routinely volunteered for dangerous missions. He maintained a level-headed approach in the face of peril, earning him respect from his fellow soldiers. 

One of his comrades-in-arms said about Kilmer, “He would always be doing more than his orders called for, i.e., getting much nearer to the enemy’s positions than any officer would be inclined to send him. Night after night, he would lie out in No Man’s Land, crawling through barbed wires, in an effort to locate enemy positions and enemy guns, and tearing his clothes to shreds.”

Kilmer’s willingness to undertake dangerous scouting missions brought about his untimely end. He was killed in action in 1918 when a German sniper shot and killed Kilmer while scouting during the Second Battle of Marne. Kilmer’s squadmates discovered his body and buried it nearby. Kilmer received the Croix de Guerre, a French military medal awarded for bravery feats. 

Before his death, Kilmer wrote poetry while fighting in France and had agreed to write a book about his experiences. It was to be titled Here and There with the Fighting Sixty-Ninth, but unfortunately, Kilmer didn’t have time to complete it. However, much of his writing during the war — including fragments of the book-to-be — were published posthumously. 

Today Kilmer’s legacy is primarily due to the mass popularity he earned for writing “Trees.” His work is not without its detractors, which many critics, both past and present, read as being too sentimental, preachy, and overly-simple. Despite this, Kilmer’s work had a widespread appeal that touched the hearts of many during an intensely troubled time in world history. 

Joyce Kilmer is kept alive today in the form of an impressive number of namesakes, including a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike and several schools. You can also find a commemorative plaque in his honor in New York City’s Central Park, and there’s the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in western North Carolina. It seems only fitting that his name lives on amongst the trees.

Joyce Kilmer

  • Born on Dec. 6, 1886, in New Brunswick, N.J.

  • Died on July 30, 1918, in Seringes-et-Nesles, France.


Sources

Significant effort goes into ensuring the information shared in Bidwell Hollow’s content is factual and accurate. However, errors can occur. If you see a factual error, please let me know by emailing nick@bidwellhollow.com. I’ll make every effort to verify and correct any factual inaccuracies. Thank you.

George Saunders

Joan Didion

Calvin Trillin

Joyce Kilmer


Notable Literary Births & Events for Nov. 30-Dec. 6

Nov. 30

  • Jacques Barzun

  • John Dickson Carr

  • Tayari Jones

  • Adeline Yen Mah

  • John McCrae

  • Lucy Maud Montgomery

  • Daniel Keys Moran

  • David Nicholls

  • John Toland

  • Mark Twain

Dec. 1

  • Candace Bushnell

  • John Crowley

  • Kemal Kurspahić

  • Julia A. Moore

  • George Sterling

  • Henry Williamson

Dec. 2

  • Elizabeth Berg

  • Tahar Ben Jelloun

  • Leon Litwack

  • Ann Patchett

  • George Saunders

  • Rex Stout

  • Charles H. Wesley

  • Charles Dickens gives his first public reading in the U.S. in Boston in 1867.

Dec. 3

  • Grace Andreacchi

  • Francesca Lia Block

  • T.C. Boyle

  • Joseph Conrad

  • F. Sionil José

  • Eli Mandel

  • Alyson Noël

  • Craig Raine

  • David K. Shipler

Dec. 4

  • Joan Brady

  • John Giorno

  • Morgan Llywelyn

  • Kafū Nagai

  • Cornell Woolrich

Dec. 5

  • James Lee Burke

  • Samuel Butler

  • Ellis Parker Butler

  • Ann Nolan Clark

  • Joan Didion

  • Hans Hellmut Kirst

  • Lydia Millet

  • Rainer Maria Rilke

  • Christina Rossetti

  • Louis Sachar

  • Adam Thorpe

  • Calvin Trillin

Dec. 6

  • Dion Fortune

  • Joyce Kilmer

  • Jason Reynolds

  • Elizabeth Yates

  • Vladimir Nabokov finishes writing Lolita in 1953.