This Week in Literary History: Oct. 26-Nov. 1

Recognizing the birthdays of Sylvia Plath and Maxine Hong Kingston

Welcome to a new edition of This Week in Literary History from Bidwell Hollow. Stories and a list of upcoming notable literary births and events for Oct. 26-Nov. 1 are below.


If you know someone who might enjoy this email, tap the button below to send it to them.

Share

If you’re new in these parts, you can subscribe below. Literary history emails like this one go out on Mondays. You’ll get biweekly writer interviews on Tuesdays, and a roundup of recent book lists from around the web on Fridays. Welcome!


An Author Who Proves It’s All About Perception

By Christine Kingery

“Girls are the maggots in the rice,” Maxime Hong Kingston reflected in describing her childhood cultural views about gender. “There was a sense that something was wrong with the status of girls in both Chinese and American culture in the 40s.” 

Perception colors all the ways we see ourselves and the world in which we live. For Maxine Hong Kingston, writing is one way she wrestles with her distorted views of self. In her work and interviews, she illustrates how perception leads to suffering. Kingston describes herself as diminutive and shy, as being an empowerer of students and veterans. Others, like author Eva Hoffman, have described her as a “bridging figure between two disparate worlds and sensibilities.” 

Kingston’s writing functions as a bridge in many senses of the word: bridge between old and new worlds; Chinese and American; male and female; suffering and joy. In a 1982 essay, “Cultural Misreadings by American Reviewers,” Kingston complained about being measured “against the stereotype of the exotic, inscrutable, mysterious Oriental.” 

To Kingston, she was simply an American telling one kind of American story: the immigrant story. Kingston is a first-generation American born of Chinese immigrant parents. 

Despite being educated, her parents struggled to find work and acceptance in their new American home. Although he was a professional scholar and teacher in China, Kingston’s father instead worked menial jobs until he found some success as a manager of an illegal gambling house in California. Maxine was the third of eight children and the eldest of six born in the United States. The experience permeates her work of being a first-generation female whose formative years she spent in the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

Kingston’s books include The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts and Hawai’i One Summer. Her breadth of writing defies any one particular genre, which is why, in part, she appeals to many readers. Despite her claim to the contrary, Maxine is exotic to Americans, but in a relatable way. Her books are mixes of nonfiction, fiction, sociology, anthropology, biography, history, women’s literature, and Chinese and Asian Literature. “This confusion really makes me feel good,” Kingston wrote to author Shawn Wong in 1976.

The confusion over Kingston’s work stems from a lack of understanding of her intentions or the cultural influences behind her work. This misunderstanding has been the target of strong criticism from critics. Some reviewers have blamed her for racial stereotyping, others for demonizing a culture, and “airing their dirty laundry.” Others have criticized Kingston for misappropriation of white culture to tell stories that have Asian roots. Others claim she has “over-exaggerat[ed] Asian American female oppression.”  

Maxine Hong Kingston’s literary voice has superseded her critics. She’s received many awards over the years, including a 1976 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction for The Woman Warrior and a 1981 National Book Award for China Men. Kingston’s also received a National Humanities Medal, Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Literary Awards, and the National Medal of Arts. 

Kingston’s influence is far-reaching; when President Obama presented Kingston with the National Medal of Arts in 2014, he said that her book The Woman Warrior inspired him while writing his first book, Dreams from My Father.

Those who know Kingston well know say people can admire her for more than just her cultural, prosaic works. She is an activist with roots of peaceful protesting stemming from the Vietnam War, and she has worked side-by-side with the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh over the years. 

Living and working in Berkeley, Calif., during the height of the Vietnam era taught her the power of engaged activism (and hallucinogenic drugs). After moving to Hawaii in 1967, she participated in Hawaii’s first anti-war march and founded a sanctuary for conscientious objectors and soldiers going AWOL. Later, in 2003, Kingston was arrested along with writer Alice Walker, outside the White House while protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Today, Kingston continues the work she began in the 1990s, bringing war veterans to her events and readings and inviting them to share their work alongside hers. It’s part-writing workshop, part therapy group. In this project, Kingston has worked with veteran Bob Golling, a veteran and an early recruit by Kingston. Kingston reflects on this program's power in her book The Fifth Book of Peace, and Golling in his book Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.

“I was struck mostly by how small she was,” her editor from Knopf, Charles Elliott, remarked about laying eyes on Kingston for the first time. “When she stood behind the podium, she disappeared and had to stand beside it.” 

It all goes back to perception. Kingston may be short in stature, but her influence looms large.

Maxine Hong Kingston

  • Born on Oct. 27, 1940, in Stockton, Calif.


Guessing the Mind of a Tragic, Creative Artist

By Andria Kennedy

To date, over 104 books have documented and dissected the life of Sylvia Plath. A monumental amount for a woman whose notable literary career spanned a mere seven years. Seven years in which she only managed to publish three books - one posthumously. (This excludes the poems and essays she authored outside of her collections.) 

The literary world remains fascinated with Plath's words and life, repeatedly returning to examine her mind, relationship, and the demons that drove her to take her own life at the tender age of thirty.

Plath kept meticulous journals, documenting her thoughts and daily activities. Preserved mostly by her husband, Ted Hughes, and mother, they offer glimpses into the workings of her mind and the creative imagination of a woman driven by the magic she glimpsed in the world around her.

"Of course, Henry Holt rejected my book last night with the most equivocal of letters," Plath wrote in her journal in 1959. "I wept, simply because I want to get rid of the book, mummify it in print so that everything I want to write now doesn't get sucked in its maw. Ted suggested I write a new book. All right, I shall." 

Plath etched these words shortly before starting the poems that became the foundation of her first poetry collection, The Colossus. One can feel the emotion chasing through her words, the rampant desire of a poet's beating heart.

Many speculate as to whether Sylvia Plath suffered from depression alone or, more likely, manic-depression. The autobiographical depiction of her mental breakdown in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, sways one direction. However, her own penned words from a 1958 journal entry veer in another. "It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative. Whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it." 

With no effective treatment for either condition available at the time, Plath succumbed to the biochemical imbalances of her brain in silence. She dove into her poetry with ferocity, slowly breaking free from time constraints to explore themes of politics, materialistic-thinking, and sex. Critics embraced Ariel, Plath's second poetry collection, with open arms - a welcome Plath never witnessed.

Ironically, the crushing blow of discovering her husband's infidelity, struggling to care for two small children, and fretting over finances in the unfamiliar world of England produced some of Sylvia Plath's best work. 

Even her husband, Hughes, marveled at her genius (perhaps in an attempt to deflect attention from the bad press about his behavior), writing in a 1965 essay, "Behind these poems there is a fierce and uncompromising nature. There is also a child desperately infatuated with the world. And there is a strange muse, bald, white, and wild, in her 'hood of bone,' floating over a landscape like that of the Primitive Painters." 

Yet, even as psychologists shake their heads over Plath's crumbling state of mind, details of compassion and a beating heart remain. She battled her demons in small ways, struggling against that final collapse. Even as Plath planned her demise, she took the time to protect her children. Glasses of milk and bread were laid out for their breakfast, making sure they wouldn't go hungry come morning. She sealed the kitchen with rags, ensuring no gas would leak and harm them while they slept. Desperate and lost within the abyss of her misery, Sylvia Plath showed forethought and concern.

Literary critic Denis Donoghue put her state of mind eloquently in a recent analysis. "The horrifying tone of her poetry underscores a depth of feeling that can be attributed to few other poets, and her near-suicidal attempt to communicate a frightening existential vision overshadows the shaky technique of her final poems," Donoghue wrote. "Plath writes of the human dread of dying. Her primitive honesty and emotionalism are her strength."

At the very end, when facing her demons, it's entirely possible Sylvia Plath felt every drop of the fear contained within her poetry. Yet she retained enough strength to protect what she held most precious.

The literary world continues its fascination with Plath's work, and they feel a need to pry into the workings of her mind. Ironic, considering the taboo of mental health continuing to lay oppressively on the world. The tangled imagination that led to her demise also produced some of the most thought-provoking works of our time. It's a sad and thoughtful story - one that never loses its impact.

As Sylvia Plath best said herself, "Is there no way out of the mind?"

Sylvia Plath

  • Born on Oct. 27, 1932, in Boston, Mass.

  • Died on Feb. 11, 1963, in London, England.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d0/Sylvia_Plath.jpg

George Austen Writs a Publisher On Behalf of His Daughter, Jane

By Emily Quiles

A father's love, complex in its emotional nature, is often delivered in action. I imagine George Austen held a similar sentiment for his daughter, Jane Austen, when he wrote to a London publishing firm, Cadell & Davies, on Nov. 1, 1797:

"Sir, I have in my possession a manuscript novel comprising 3 vols., about the length of Miss (Fanny) Burney's Evelina."

The manuscript George possessed was Jane's First Impressions, which today we know as Pride and Prejudice.

George's handwriting holds a consistent dimension – small, compact, and with swift motions. The ends of his lowercase'd' arch to the left side of the page and circle back as if pointing to the next mark. The scribe of his curved tailed 'y' either meets the previously settled ink or is left isolated in a hook to suspend its loop. His heavy inked stroked slash cling onto the slant of the 't,' as it reaches towards the word's beginning.

On the mention of calligraphy, his signature leaves no presence of boastfulness. His compiled strokes abbreviate his first name to Geo., allowing his last, Austen, to way heavier in ink and eye.

In a letter to Jane's brother following their father's death in 1805, Jane wrote, "We have lost an excellent Father. The sweet, benevolent smile which always distinguished him… His tenderness as a father, who can do justice to?"

Jane's letter paints color to their father-daughter relationship.

George was known to be a humble man, dedicated to his work and intellect. He opened a boarding school at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, England, and sold produce from his farm. While his boarding school was for the local village men, he would encourage his two daughters, Cassandra and Jane, to read from his library. The family of eight children regularly read to each other and wrote poetry, novels, and plays.

Their eldest son, James, was an established poet and writer and considered the "writer" of the family. Yet George also believed his 22-year-old daughter's talent deserved encouragement.

"As I am well aware of what consequence it is that a work of this sort should make its first appearance under a respectable name, I apply to you," George wrote in his letter to Cadell & Davies.

George was referring to the work of women writers telling stories featuring female characters and topics. After all, George was writing in 18th century-England, when women held no right to vote or own property. Even Fanny Burney's father initially disapproved of her publishing her work. That was until she gained fame.

Publishers at the time were notorious for editing down risque and morally dubious behaviors. Villainous characters were a no go, especially female ones. Yet George approached Cadell & Davies because the firm had a track record of female literary stars – including Charlotte Turner Smith, Catharine Macaulay, Hannah More, Frances Brooke, Helen Maria Williams, and Fanny Burney.

George's letter to the publisher, Thomas Cadell, continues:

"I shall be much obliged, therefore, if you will inform me whether you choose to be concerned in it, what will be the expense of publishing it at the author's risk, and what you will venture to advance for the property of it, if on perusal it is approved of. Should you give any encouragement, I will send you the work."

George's letter returned to the family's home, unopened, with the words, "Declined by return post," written in elegant curvature across its top.

Despite the rejection, Jane Austen kept writing, using the sloping meadows and grand elm trees surrounding her home as catalysts for inspiration.  

Jane started what became her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1797. She spent part of 1797 and the following year writing Northanger Abbey, and Jane rewrote First Impressions

But it took years for Jane to see her work published. In 1803 she sold Northanger Abbey to Benjamin Crosby for £10, yet Crosby didn't release it until after Jane's death in 1817. Finally, in 1811, Thomas Egerton published Sense and Sensibility. Egerton then purchased Pride and Prejudice for £110 in 1813, 16 years after George Austen first tried to sell the novel's manuscript.

Pride and Prejudice came out on Jan. 28, 1813. To date, it's sold over 20 million copies and inspired many films and TV shows.


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.

Maxine Hong Kingston

Sylvia Plath

George Austen Writes Publisher


Notable Literary Births & Events for

Oct. 26

  • Andrei Bely

  • Karin Boye

  • Jim Butcher

  • Pat Conroy

  • Trevor Joyce

  • Steven Kellogg

  • Sorley MacLean

  • Adam Mars-Jones

  • Andrew Motion

  • Andrew Neiderman

  • Stacy Schiff

Oct. 27

  • Anthony Doerr

  • J.A. Jance

  • Maxine Hong Kingston

  • Fran Lebowitz

  • Sylvia Plath

  • Dylan Thomas

Oct. 28

  • Zoe Fishman

  • Ian Hamilton Finlay

  • John Hollander

  • William W. Johnstone

  • Gary Lavergne

  • Caroline Moorehead

  • Anne Perry

  • Sharon Thesen

  • Evelyn Waugh

Oct. 29

  • Fredric Brown

  • Lee Child

  • Dominick Dunne

  • Jean Giraudoux

  • Margo Orlando Little

  • Gerald Morris

  • Kate Seredy

Oct. 30

  • Kay Hooper

  • Gloria Oden

  • Ezra Pound

  • Sukumar Ray

  • Elizabeth Madox Roberts

  • Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio play is broadcast in 1938.

Oct. 31

  • John Evelyn

  • John Keats

  • William H. McNeill

  • Susan Orlean

  • Katherine Paterson

  • Julia Peterkin

  • Neal Stephenson

Nov. 1

  • Edmund Blunden

  • Gordon R. Dickson

  • Hermann Broch

  • Sakutarō Hagiwara

  • Stephen Crane

  • Susanna Clarke

  • William Melvin Kelley

  • Zenna Henderson

  • George Austen writes to publisher Thomas Cadell in 1797, offering his daughter's manuscript of First Impressions, which became Pride and Prejudice.