This Week in Literary History: Oct. 12-18

Recognizing the birthdays of Ann Petry, Ocean Vuong, and more

Welcome to a new week, and a new issue of This Week in Literary History. Enjoy the stories below, recognizing the birthdays of the writers Ann Petry, Arna Bontemps, Ocean Vuong, and Mario Puzo. A list of all notable literary births and events for this week is at the end of this email.

Thanks for reading, and sharing, Bidwell Hollow.

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A Harlem Renaissance Writer Who Cared More for Her Community Than Herself

By Emily Quiles

Between counting medication on the countertop of her father’s pharmacy in Saybrook, Conn., Ann Petry would lean into her imagination writing short stories. For 30 years, she trained to follow the family’s three generations into medicine. All while she revered the craft of words.

She left the family’s business in 1938. Newly married to her husband Geroge – which she kept a secret from her family for two years – she moved to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. 

Less than a decade later, the 1946 publication of her first novel, The Street,led her to be known as the first African-American woman to sell more than a million copies. The book is known as a “symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth.”

But she used a pseudonym for her first published piece, a story titled “Marie of the Cabin Club.” TheBaltimore Afro-Americannewspaper published the tale, bylined by “Arnold Petri,” in 1939. Why Arnold? At the time, female writers used male pen names so readers would take them seriously.

Many small mysteries surround Petry’s early life. Records show six potential dates for Petry’s birthday, Oct. 12 or Oct. 20, in 1908, 1912, or 1910. Other mysteries include: Why did she drop the second “a” from her first name? And why did she keep her marriage a secret?

She wrote for the Harlem newspaper Amsterdam News and the weekly newsletterPeople’s Voice, where she wrote a weekly column for the women’s page featuring the lives and voices of African American workers.

According to Farah Griffin, her weekly column focused on the realities found in her early fiction – “housing, segregation, equal opportunity, and the fight against white supremacy at home and abroad.”

Besides being a source of information for her community, she also served on the boards of “as many organizations as seemed to improve the quality of life for Harlem’s most vulnerable: its women and children.”

She volunteered at Harlem’s after-school programs, prepared press releases for the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, taught a business letter writing course for NAACP. She also helped found the Negro Women Inc. – a consumer protection organization for Black women that fought against employment discrimination and racist portrayals of American Americans in the mainstream press.

She felt her communal duty was a must, saying, “Although I had been aware of Harlem, this was [my] first realization of the impact of that kind of hard life on kids. I lived my whole life without paying attention. It wasn’t my life. But once I became aware, I couldn’t see anything but.”

The Street was a direct reflection on what she experienced growing up Black in 1930s America. Her character development highlighted America’s racism problem. 

Petry said, commenting on her work, “Look at [Black people] and remember them. Remember for what a long, long time Black people have been in this country, have been a part of America: a sturdy, indestructible, wonderful part of America, woven into its heart and into its soul.”

She didn’t care for the complexities of fame which followed after Petry published The Street. Petry wanted readers to direct their attention to her writing, not her personal life.

She told a radio interviewer, “Continuous public exposure, though it may make you a ‘personality,’ can diminish you as a person. To be a willing accomplice to the invasion of your own privacy puts a low price on its worth. The creative processes are, or should be, essentially secret, and although naked flesh is now an open commodity, the naked spirit should have sanctuary.”

Petry’s fear of public exposure led her to destroy most of her past journals and letters. Yet while she hid behind her work, Petry’s characters drew close from her experiences. 

According to Petry’s daughter, Liz Petry, her mother spent a significant amount of her time trying to answer questions on the themes of: Why did you decide to become a writer? What were the sources for your novels and short stories? And later, why did you stop writing?

“She never found a satisfactory answer to the first question. She left some notes about the second. And even though she stopped publishing fiction, the answer to the third question was that she never stopped writing,” Liz wrote in her book, At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry.

Ann Petry

  • Born on Oct. 12 or Oct. 20, 1908, 1912, or 1910

  • Died on Apr. 28, 1997


Arna Bontemps Chronicled, Championed, and Celebrated Black America

By Christine Kingery

With Black Lives Matter taking center stage, it’s an excellent time to learn about Arna Bontemps. Bontemps was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement in the 1920s. 

Although he lived in many places in the U.S. during his lifetime, he taught at Harlem Academy for several years, beginning in 1924. During that time, he forged important friendships and collaborated with other Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, W.E.B. DuBois, and many other literary powerhouses.

Although Bontemps was a writer of many genres, his legacy differs from his literary contemporaries; he is remembered best as a librarian and a children’s book writer. Like his peers, Bontemps demonstrated the humanity of dark-skinned people, demanded equality, and, at the same time, promoted ethnic pride. Throughout Bontemps’ works, he craftily wove in fragments of African Americans’ musical and oral traditions, especially jazz, like many of his literary peers during this period. 

Bontemps specifically wrote literature for other African Americans, not for an audience of white-skinned people. His adult novel, Black Thunder, is considered his best work and recounts a slave rebellion in 1800 that took place near Richmond, Va., led by Gabriel Prosser. In the book, a fellow slave betrays Prosser, who is subsequently captured by whites and lynched. 

The novel illustrates Bontemps’ frustration with his generation as he felt people ignored the message of equality. This is among many reasons why Bontemps chose instead to write books for children who were, as he said, “not yet insensitive to man’s inhumanity to man.”

To Bontemps, racial issues were a current and present issue, not ancient history. For instance, he was living in Alabama as the Scottsboro Boys trial was gripping the nation. During the 1931 event, all-white juries convicted nine African American teenagers aged 13 to 19 of raping two white women. During its time as well as today, the trial was considered a gross miscarriage of justice, highlighted by the use of all-white juries. Bontemps and his friends protested the prosecution.

The decision to write children’s books was unique, and Bontemps became one of the first authors in the 20th century to write books specifically for young African Americans. This is, in part, because more young African American children were literate thanks to the development of public schools during this time. 

“Major writers of the time were deeply invested in the enterprise of building a black national identity through literary constructions of childbooks,” Katharine Capshaw Smith wrote in Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance

Instead of trying to change the attitudes of adult Black people, Bontemps instead tried to instill a sense of pride and knowledge of racial history in the youth. Bontemps collaborated with Langston Hughes, a longtime friend of his, on a children’s book called Popo and Fina, Children of Haiti, and Bontemps collaborated with Jack Conroy on the children’s book They Seek a City.

Bontemps struggled to support his family as a writer, which was another cause of his disillusionment. With a wife and six children to look after, Bontemps had to turn to work other than writing for economic stability, spending most of his early life moving from job to job as a teacher. Bontemps eventually returned to school and, at 41 years, old received his master’s degree in library science. 

During his tenure as head librarian at Fisk University in Tennessee, he developed important collections and archives of African American literature and culture, including the Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection. Much later in life, he served as curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University and worked at the University of Illinois-Chicago. 

Bontemps’ careful attention to detailing African Americans’ literary importance was groundbreaking and has left an important legacy that continues to this day. 

Bontemps received many accolades for his collective work, including having a public middle school named after him in Chicago and having his home where he grew up in Louisiana preserved as the first African American museum in the state. Charles L. James wrote in his book about Bontemps that few who knew the writer as a boy, “would have guessed that the shy, soft-spoken youngster would become the acknowledged chronicler of his culture and conscience of his age.” 

Bontemps earned two Guggenheim Fellowships, and his children’s history book, Story of the Negro, received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and is a Newbery Honor Book. 

Arna Bontemps

  • Born on Oct. 13, 1902, in Alexandria, La.

  • Died on June 4, 1973, in Nashville, Tenn.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cf/Arna_Bontemps_%281939%29.jpg

English Isn't a Second Language In This Poet-Turned-Novelist's Hands

By Andria Kennedy

“Even though a life is broken, it’s still worthy and capable of a complete story if we look at it in the ground zero, to the point where we cannot even imagine what it looked like before the fracture,” Ocean Vuong said. Vuong’s lyrical words capture the fragile delicacy of his life while reflecting the poetry of his stanzas and fiction all in a single sentence.

Vuong’s life and work embody struggles, coming to grips as a Vietnamese refugee with no English cognizance until age 11. It’s a fact that stuns his readers as they stare at the swooping lines of loss and survival that dance through his poetry and prose. Despite his struggle to overcome the late start in our country’s language, words hold a certain magic for Vuong. 

“I think perhaps the disability helped me a bit, because I write very slowly and see words as objects,” Vuong said. “I’m always trying to look for words inside of words. It’s so beautiful to me that the word ‘laughter’ is inside ‘slaughter.’”

In 2019, Vuong braved the task of venturing away from his beloved poetry for the confines of a novel. Adhering to his themes of love, sex, death, loneliness, and the hope of youth, he drew the title from one of his beloved poems, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

The novel took the form of a letter from the main character, addressed to a mother who is never intended to read the result. The fictionalized story parallels Ocean’s mother, who never learned English herself. 

The heart-wrenching beauty is impossible to miss, particularly following an interview Vuong shared with the Los Angeles Review of Books: “My mother doesn’t speak English, and she went to one of my readings. The reading’s over, and I go back with her, and I see she’s crying. I said, ‘Mom? You didn’t understand, couldn’t understand. Why are you crying?’ And she said, ‘I never thought I’d live to see all these old white people clapping for my son.’ I remembered that here’s a woman who kneels down, lowers her head every day to old white people while she’s doing their pedicures, that’s her job, that’s part of her livelihood, and that act, although it’s a fair and equal exchange, is not nothing. There’s meaning in that act of supplication, this head lowered just to do the very practical act of giving a pedicure. I think for the first time, they were also clapping for her.”

Tragically, Vuong’s mother passed away late last year from breast cancer. Art could not mirror life more fully; for Little Dog in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous must bury his mother Rose before completing his letter. 

One can’t help but feel Ocean’s emotions in his words, “When I see a book, I see the fingerprint, the mental and emotional fingerprint of a person on the page. Without language, we wouldn’t have that.” The parallels in his life reach out to every reader and gently clasp their heart in his hands.

While completing the novel daunted Ocean, he felt compelled by his friends and family to undertake the labor of love. His mother often questioned him, “If you don’t do it, who will?” Deflecting the words of critics insistent on pigeonholing the work as an immigrant story, or a gay story, Vuong set out to detail a legacy of human violence in every form, complete with the “nonsensical, absurdist rationale around it.” His poetic heart dances through the work, with passages and chapters organized with recurring phrases that gain momentum, the same as one experiences within his verses.

“The novel, the more you build it, the more it enlarges in your periphery - like the slowest nightfall - until you can’t do anything without seeing it darken the corner of your eye: an entire world you made getting larger, garnering its own frictions, weathers, velocities. I was haunted by fiction,” Vuong said.

Ocean Vuong makes even the torment of the writing process sound magical. His gift with words provides a level of inspiration that defies description.

Ocean Vuong

  • Born on Oct. 14, 1988, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The Writer Who Made an Offer Readers Couldn't Refuse With His Iconic Novel

By Andrew Sanger

Mario Puzo made it big in 1969 when he published his iconic novel, The Godfather. The book was an unbelievable success, remaining on the best-seller list for 67 weeks and selling over nine million copies in the first two years alone. And in 1970, Paramount pictures came to Puzo with an offer he couldn’t refuse: a chance to help write the screenplay for his novel’s film adaptation.

The first Godfather film, which spawned perhaps the most lauded film trilogy of all time, was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co-written by Coppola and Puzo. Coppola famously was not a fan of the book, at least at first, apparently thinking it to be rather sleazy and uninteresting. He was eventually convinced to work on the film to make enough money to fund other projects in which he was interested.

Puzo, surprisingly, initially had a similar relationship with the book. While he was still an aspiring novelist, his first two ventures had yielded two critically well-received, albeit not commercially successful books. With mounting debts building up and a large family to feed, he decided it was time to abandon any high-minded attempts at writing literary fiction and instead come up with something that would put food on the table.

The rest, of course, is history. The Godfather was a massive success, and Puzo never had to worry about feeding his kids another day in his life. Despite it not necessarily being the book he wanted to write, he had found a way to do it right. Now all that was left was to get the screenplay done with Coppola. 

Puzo and Coppola collaborated on all aspects of the screenplay for the entire Godfather trilogy. Despite a handful of clashes over the novel’s changes, the two agreed to keep most things as close to the book as possible. When asked about transitioning from writing books to writing screenplays, Puzo said, “It was a cinch. It was a cinch because it was the first time I’d ever written a screenplay, so I didn’t know what I was doing.” 

What amounted from the two’s collaboration was a series of films that surpassed even the novel’s massive worldwide success. The first two Godfather films won a combined nine Academy Awards and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. Puzo went from writing on a typewriter in his basement to working on significant screenplays in glitzy offices of the Hollywood elite in just a few short years.

Following his work on The Godfather films, Puzo went on to work on many other significant screenplays, including two Superman films. However, this didn’t stop him from continuing to write books. Puzo wrote several more novels, many of which focused on the same mafia-family drama that had made him famous in the first place. 

In a story that Puzo liked to tell, he one day decided that, despite already holding the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Godfather, if he were to continue working on Hollywood screenplays, he would need to get to know the craft a bit better. As Puzo tells it, he bought a book on how to write scripts. The book’s first chapter said that you needed only to study The Godfather to understand screenwriting, as it was the greatest screenplay ever written. According to Tony Puzo, Mario’s son, “After that, he threw the book away.”

Mario Puzo

  • Born on Oct. 15, 1920, in New York, N.Y.

  • Died on Jul. 2, 1999, in Bay Shore, N.Y.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/0c/Mario_Puzo.jpg

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.

Ann Petry

Arna Bontemps

Ocean Vuong

Mario Puzo


Notable Literary Births & Events for Oct. 12-18

Oct. 12

  • Lester Dent

  • Robert Fitzgerald

  • Eugenio Montale

  • Ann Petry

  • The first Paddington Bear book, A Bear Called Paddington, is published in 1958.

Oct. 13

  • Arna Bontemps

  • Lincoln Child

  • Richard Howard

  • Albert Jay Nock

  • Han Seung-Won

Oct. 14

  • E.E. Cummings

  • Katherine Mansfield

  • Katha Pollitt

  • Masaoka Shiki

  • Ocean Vuong

  • Shane, a Western novel by Jack Schaefer, is published in 1949.

  • Winnie-the-Pooh is first published in 1926.

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is first published in 1892.

Oct. 15

  • Stephen Clarke

  • Roxane Gay

  • Michael Lewis

  • Ed McBain

  • Laurie McBain

  • Mario Puzo

  • C.P. Snow

  • George Turner

  • Walter Jon Williams

  • P.G. Wodehouse

  • Virgil

Oct. 16

  • Lorenzo Carcaterra

  • Günter Grass

  • Marc Levy

  • Paul Monette

  • Meg Rosoff

  • Oscar Wilde

  • Kathleen Winsor

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is published in 1847.

Oct. 17

  • George Mackay Brown

  • Miguel Delibes

  • Sumner Locke Elliott

  • Alan Garner

  • Elinor Glyn

  • Jupiter Hammon

  • Robert Jordan

  • David Means

  • Arthur Miller

  • Nathanael West

Oct. 18

  • James Truslow Adams

  • James Robert Baker

  • Evelyn Berckman

  • H.L. Davis

  • Esther Hautzig

  • Steven Leyva

  • Terry McMillan

  • Rick Moody

  • Bảo Ninh

  • Thomas Love Peacock

  • Ntozake Shange

  • Charles Stross

  • Wendy Wasserstein

  • First, expurgated three-volume edition of Moby-Dick published in London as The Whale in 1851.