Today in Literary History: Jan. 23-26

Derek Walcott, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and more

Here are your Today in Literary History stories from Bidwell Hollow for Jan. 23-26. On Monday, I accidentally only sent the Jan. 20-22 stories to paid Bidwell Hollow subscribers. I apologize. You can see those stories here.


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Free editions of Today in Literary History left: 4

Jan. 23

Derek Walcott

The Aug. 2, 1944, edition of The Voice of St. Lucia carried a poem by a 14-year-old boy named Derek Walcott. The piece, titled “1944,” contained 44 lines. Walcott’s central message in “1944” was that a person could get close to God through nature.

But three days after the poem appeared, The Voice of St. Lucia carried another item. Titled “Reflections,” a Roman Catholic priest wrote the piece. He admonished Walcott. People needed the Church to have a relationship with God, the priest argued. And he attacked the young poet for his stylistic choices. Later recalling the experience, Walcott said, “So I got into trouble there, but that was okay.”

Invoking the anger of the Catholic Church didn’t deter Walcott’s art. At 18, he borrowed $200 from his mother to self-publish his first collection, 25 Poems. And his 1962 book, In a Green Night: Poems, 1948-1960, caught the attention of people outside of St. Lucia. The volume’s poems highlight the West Indies’ culture and natural landscape. Both became themes in Walcott’s poetry.

The poet produced many collections over 40 years. His books include 1964’s The Gulf, The Star-Apple Kingdom from 1979, and 1984’s Midsummer. In 1990, Walcott published Omeros, a 300-line epic patterned after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Except, the 20th-century Caribbean is the setting for Walcott’s version.

Along with poetry, Walcott wrote plays earlier in his career. His best-known is “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” In 1971, the two-act drama netted Walcott an Obie Award for Best Foreign Play.

But the most-notable achievement Walcott earned is the Nobel Prize in Literature. He won in 1992 for, according to the Nobel Committee, “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.”

Walcott was born on Jan. 23, 1930, in Castries, St. Lucia. For much of his life, he spent time between that island and the U.S. And it’s on St. Lucia that Walcott died on Mar. 17, 2017.

Jan. 24

Edith Wharton

American ex-pat Edith Wharton was at a tea party outside of Paris on Jun. 28, 1914, when troubling news arrived. Earlier that day, an assassin killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. “As we sat there, a cloud-shadow swept over us, abruptly darkening bright flowers and bright dresses,” Wharton later recalled.

By August of that year, Germany was at war with Russia, England, and France. World War I, or the Great War, was underway. Wharton visited France throughout her life, moving to Paris in 1907. Now that her adopted country was at war, she did not flee. Instead, Wharton went to work.

She helped the French Red Cross and started workrooms that employed women sewists who lost their jobs due to the war. Wharton established hostels for people fleeing war-torn Belgium and northeastern France. Her efforts included starting schools for refugee children.

Wharton was born on Jan. 24, 1862, into a wealthy New York family. And she was a well-known author by the outbreak of World War I. But the cost of her charity work exceeded her resources. So, Wharton came up with a plan.

In 1915, the writer reached out to other artists. Would they contribute to an anthology to raise money for her charities? She asked. Many agreed, including William Butler Yeats, Sarah Bernhardt, and Henry James. In all, 57 people contributed to Wharton’s anthology. One of the contributors was former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote the book’s introduction.

The Book of the Homeless came out in Jan. 1916. Wharton’s publisher, Scribner, agreed to publish the book at cost. All the copies of its deluxe edition sold out within days. And a majority of the cheaper regular print run was gone by April. The sales raised about $24,000 for Wharton’s charities, equal to about $571,000 today.

But Wharton had another way the anthology could raise money. She asked for the book’s contributors to send drafts of the work they provided for The Book of the Homeless. Many of these, including Roosevelt’s introduction, were handwritten.

Wharton sold the drafts at auction, raising about $600,000. Combined with the book’s sales, Wharton’s anthology generated $624,000 for her charities. That’s about $14.9 million in today’s money.

Wharton paired her charity work during World War I with frontline reporting. She observed sundown during a visit to Nancy, France, in northeastern France on May 13, 1915. Wharton wrote, “Not a footstep sounded, not a leaf rustled, not a breath of air drew under the arches. And suddenly, through the dumb night, the sound of the cannon began.”

Edith Wharton received the French Legion of Honor for her war efforts. She stayed in France for the rest of her life, producing in 1920 her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence. It’s also in France that Wharton died in 1937. She’s buried at the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris.

Jan. 25

Gloria Naylor

Gloria Naylor was a quiet child. She was born on Jan. 25, 1950, in New York City, the daughter of African Americans who came from the South to the North. Naylor came of age during the Cold War and the start of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a confusing, scary time, but she kept her fears and worries to herself. Then her mother gave Naylor a diary when the girl was 13. “Writing became a way for me to make order out of chaos,” Naylor said.

Naylor and her sisters attended New York City Public Schools. In junior high, her teachers discovered she liked reading. So they gave the girl books by Charles Dickens, William, Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. “They were all wonderful writers, very wonderful writers,” Naylor said. “Still, I never read anything that reflected me.”

It wasn’t until she was 27 that Naylor realized black women wrote books, too. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye awakened Naylor to the work of writers whose experiences were more aligned with hers. Naylor was by then an English major at Brooklyn College.

And she started work on a series of interconnected stories. The stories featured African American women living in an urban public housing project. The book, The Women of Brewster Place, came out in 1982. It won a National Book Award for First Novel the following year. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions released a two-part TV drama based on the book in 1989.

Naylor went on to publish other novels, such as Linden Hills in 1985 and 1992’s Bailey’s Café. Naylor wrote stories that others enjoyed. But she said most of what she wrote was for herself, as it was when she got her diary at 13. That’s why if asked when she started writing, Naylor told people she’s been writing since she was a kid. “For me, it’s all one continuum—my trying to seek order out of disorder, out of emotions or out of facts, statements—that kind of thing.”

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born Virginia Adeline Stephen on Jan. 15, 1882, in London. Her father, Leslie, was the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, today’s Oxford Dictionary of Biography. He didn’t allow Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, to attend school as their brothers did. Instead, a tutor taught the girls at home.

Leslie did grant Virginia access to his library. She developed a love for reading, a hobby she continued into early adulthood. After turning 17, her father attempted to introduce Virginia to London society. But she refused to take part, spending parties alone and in silence. At one event, she hid behind a curtain while reading Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Virginia did marry, but eight years after her father’s death and to someone of her choosing. She met Leonard Woolf through her brother, Thoby. Though Thoby died in 1906, Virginia remained close with many of his friends. She and Leonard married on Aug. 10, 1912.

The couple, along with Vanessa and her husband, formed a flock of artistic intellectuals. They called themselves the Bloomsbury Group, so-called for the part of London where many of them lived and worked. The Bloomsbury Group counted among their ranks the writer E.M. Forster, economist John Maynard Keynes, and biographer Lytton Strachey.

The Bloomsbury Group eschewed Victorian-era mores. They believed in equality for women, supported sexual freedom, and mocked religious and societal norms. At one gathering, Vanessa danced until the top of her clothing fell away. And Virginia once swam nude in a river with the poet Rupert Brooke.

By 1917, the Woolfs lived at Hogarth House in Richmond, England. There they set up a printing press to publish theirs and their friend’s books. Hogarth Press produced 527 titles over the years. Their catalog includes Virginia’s third novel, Jacob’s Room, and the first U.K.-edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Though Virginia made significant literary contributions as a publisher, it’s as a writer where she earned her most profound mark. Virginia wrote stories about ordinary events in a person’s life. This method bucked traditional novel writing, which at that time centered on a singular, significant occurrence. Virginia explored this form in novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Virginia also used writing to challenge the patriarchy. Examples of this action include her books, such as A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

But Virginia also suffered from depression and severe bouts of self-doubt. She first attempted suicide in 1913. Two years later, Virginia experienced another breakdown. Her anxiety grew in 1941 as she worked on her novel, Between the Acts. Then on Mar. 28, she filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse in Yorkshire. Virginia Woolf was 59.

Jan. 26

Mary Mapes Dodge

Mary Mapes Dodge had never been to the Netherlands when she started writing a story about a poor Dutch family. But she’d had a Dutch grandmother. She also absorbed nonfiction books such as The History of the United Netherlands. And in 1865, Dodge’s children’s book, Hans Brinker: or, The Silver Skates, appeared.

It’s the tale of siblings Hans and Gretel Brinker, whose father is in ill health. The children want to join a skating competition, and Hans works to earn money for skates for them both. Through his selfless acts, though, Hans passes on his shot at winning the race. But, in the end, things work out for Hans, Gretel, and their parents.

Hans Brinker was an immediate success. It was second to Charles Dickens’s final novel, Our Mutual Friend, in copies sold in 1865. And it went through more than 100 editions in five languages within 30 years of its release.

Dodge was a widower who took up writing to support herself and her two sons after her husband’s death. But Hans Brinker created more opportunities for her, including editing a new children’s magazine. The first issue of St. Nicholas came out in Nov. 1873, with Dodge at its helm.

For decades, Dodge ran St. Nicholas. During her tenure, the magazine published work from well-known writers such as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Painters and illustrators such as Frederic Remington and Howard Pyle produced artwork for the periodical.

And in 1899, Dodge started with Albert Bigelow Paine, the St. Nicholas League. It was a contest for children to submit their writing and art for publishing in the magazine. Through the League, St. Nicholas published the first work of many who later became well-known writers. This list includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and William Faulkner.

Mary Mapes Dodge was born on Jan. 26, 1831, in New York City. She died on Aug. 21, 1905, in Onteora Park, N.Y. She was, at the time, still editor of St. Nicholas magazine.


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Derek Walcott

Edith Wharton

Gloria Naylor

Virginia Woolf

Mary Mapes Dodge