Today in Literary History: Feb. 6-9

Anne Spencer, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Bishop, Alice Walker

Here are your Today in Literary History stories from Bidwell Hollow for Feb. 6-9. 


Correction: In Monday’s email, the section about William S. Burroughs included the sentence, “And Mailer killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.” Vollmer was Burroughs’s wife, not Norman Mailer’s. The sentence should have read, “And Burroughs killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.” I’m sorry for the error and any confusion it may have caused. And thank you to an astute reader for pointing it out.

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Feb. 6

Anne Spencer

In 1919, Edward and Anne Spencer welcomed James Weldon Johnson into their home in Lynchburg, Va. Johnson was a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was in town to help people such as the Spencers setup a local NAACP chapter.

Johnson was a writer and a participant in the Harlem Renaissance. He’d published a novel in 1912 titled The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. And he’d also written the poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” His brother set the piece to music, and today it’s known as “The Black National Anthem.”

While staying with the Spencers, Johnson discovered that Anne, too, wrote poetry. He read her poem, “Before the Feast at Shushan.” And Johnson helped get the piece published in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, in Feb. 1920.

The connection between Anne and Johnson grew to bring other black icons into the Spencers’ orbit. The couple hosted in their home people, such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Lynchburg was a segregated town at the time. The Spencer home was one of the few places where people of color could stay while visiting.

Anne continued writing poetry while working as a librarian at the all-black Dunbar High School. She published more than 30 poems in her lifetime. And in 1973, she was the second African American poet included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

Anne Spencer was born on Feb. 6, 1882, in Henry County, Va. She was the only child of Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales, both of who had been born into slavery. Anne attended Virginia Theological Seminary and College. There she met Edward. The couple married in 1901.

Anne passed away in 1975. The home she and Edward shared in Lynchburg is now on the National Register of Historic Places. And later this year, the United States Postal Service (USPS) will release a stamp of Anne as part of its Voices of the Harlem Renaissance series.

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Paid Bidwell Hollow subscribers, you can read three of Anne Spencer’s poems, including the first one she published, “Before the Feast of Shushan.” You can also see the Spencer stamp planned by the USPS.

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Feb. 7

Charles Dickens

John Dickens had a good job as a clerk for the British Navy. But he wasn’t good at handling money. Plus, he and his wife, Elizabeth, had seven kids. This family size and John’s ineptness put a financial strain on the Dickens household. To help out, their oldest son, Charles, got a job a few days after he turned 12 on Feb. 7, 1824.

Charles went to work at a shoe polish factory. His job was to paste labels on bottles, for which he earned six shillings a week. That’s about £18 today, or $23.

The money Charles earned wasn’t enough, though. Authorities arrested John and placed him in debtors prison on Feb. 20, 1824. Not long after, Elizabeth and most of their children joined John in jail. Charles, as the only earner in his family, remained free, as did his older sister, Fanny. She was studying at the Royal Academy of Music.

The Dickens family got out of prison in May 1824. But Charles continued working at the factory for about a year before he returned to school. About this period of his life, Charles later wrote, “It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.”

After finishing his education, Charles went to work as a reporter. While covering Parliament, he published satirical articles using the pseudonym Boz. Titled “Sketches by Boz,” the pieces gained a readership, which led to Charles releasing The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Serialized over 20 installments starting in 1836, The Pickwick Papers made Charles Dickens famous. He was 24.

Charles is today one of the best-known writers ever to live. He published 15 novels and five novellas. Charles’s work includes A Christmas Carol, The Adventures of Oliver Twist, and A Tale of Two Cities.

And it doesn’t appear Charles held much ill will toward his father for his having to work in a factory when he was 12. In his novel, David Copperfield, Charles created a character named Wilkins Micawber. Micawber is a loveable, light-hearted man. But, like Charles’s father, Micawber’s plagued by money trouble. “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness,” Micawber says in David Copperfield. “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Feb. 8

Elizabeth Bishop

Feb. 8, 2020, is Elizabeth Bishop Day in Key West, Fla. It’s the 109th anniversary of the poet’s birthday. Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Mass.

As part of the celebrations in Key West, the Elizabeth Bishop House will open to the public for the first time. The home’s located at 624 White St. Using money from her partner, Louise Crane, Bishop bought the house in 1938 for $2,000.

Bishop lived there until 1944. During that time, she wrote many of the poems included in her first collection, North & South. The book came out in 1946. The poet added 17 verses to the volume and rereleased it in 1955 as Poems: North & South: A Cold Spring. For that volume, Bishop won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Bishop sold her Key West house in 1946, two years after she left town. The same family owned the home for 73 years. Then the Key West Literary Seminar (KWLS) purchased the house in November.

The organization is restoring the property as it was during Bishop’s time. It’s a process made easier by the letters Bishop wrote while living in the house. She relayed in much of her correspondence details about the home’s layout and appearance.

KWLS is raising $2.25 million to fund the restoration work. The organization will make Bishop’s house its headquarters when the project is complete. KWLS is accepting donations toward the project through its website.

Though the restoration isn’t complete, KWLS is opening Bishop’s house to the public this weekend. The organization’s planned several events to honor the poet, including a cake cutting. KWLS, by the way, has on its board two Key West-based authors you may recognize: Judy Blume and Meg Cabot.

Along with winning a Pulitzer, Elizabeth Bishop served as U.S. Consultant in Poetry from 1949-1950. That’s the forerunner to today’s U.S. Poet Laureate. And she was Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1966 until her death in 1979.

Feb. 9

Alice Walker

Alice Walker was born on Feb. 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Ga. When she was eight, one of her brothers accidentally shot her right eye with a BB gun. The injury left Walker blind in the eye. Despite the injury, Walker graduated valedictorian of her segregated high school in 1961.

She then went to Spelman College in Atlanta. It’s during this time that Walker started writing and becoming politically active. She met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and attended the 1963 March on Washington. After two years, Walker transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

She graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1965 and returned to the South. She moved to Jackson, Miss., working for the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Walker faced discrimination, causing her to say later, “That summer marked the beginning of the realization that I could never live happily in Africa–or anywhere else–until I could live freely in Mississippi.”

It’s while working for the NAACP that Walker met a white man named Melvyn Leventhal. The two fell in love and married in New York City in 1967. That’s the year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws barring interracial marriage. But the court ruling didn’t matter much in Mississippi.

Walker and Leventhal faced discrimination and received violent threats in Mississippi. Their union was the first legal interracial marriage in the state. By 1972, Walker had had enough. She moved to Massachusetts after accepting a teaching job at Wellesley College.

Walker was by then a published poet and author. Her first poetry volume, Once, came out in 1968. She produced her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in 1970. And Walker released a story collection, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Woman, in 1973.

She and Leventhal divorced in 1976. Walker received a Guggenheim Fellowship two years later and moved to San Francisco. She then wrote a book that some critics rank as one of the most impactful works of the 20th century.

The Color Purple came out in 1982. It’s the story of an African American woman living in Georgia from 1909-1947. The novel made Alice Walker a household name, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award.

Stephen Spielberg adapted the book into a film of the same name that came out in 1985. The movie starred Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Danny Glover. “The Color Purple” earned 11 Oscar nominations.

Walker’s produced many novels, poetry collections, essays, and short stories. Her work’s available in more than 24 languages. She’s sold more than 15 million copies of her books.

And Walker continues to be politically active. She’s spoken out on civil rights issues and criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Walker’s opinions sometimes upset people, though. Such as in 2018, when she praised the David Icke book And the Truth Shall Set You Free.

Some said Icke’s book promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Tablet Magazine writer Yair Rosenberg criticized Walker’s promotion of And the Truth Shall Set You Free. Rosenberg listed times when he said Walker voiced anti-Semitic opinions. “Walker has never been held accountable by elite cultural critics for repeatedly promoting Icke and anti-Semitism,” Rosenberg wrote.

For her part, Walker denied being anti-Semitic. On her website, she wrote, “It is a sad day for freedom of inquiry, thought, and speech when an attempt is made to frighten people into lying about what is on their nightstand.”


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Anne Spencer

Charles Dickens

Elizabeth Bishop

Alice Walker