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Agee, James Rufus (27 November 1909–16 May 1955), writer, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Hugh James Agee, a construction company employee, and Laura Whitman Tyler. The father’s family were poorly educated mountain farmers, while the mother’s were solidly middle class. Agee was profoundly affected by his father’s death in a car accident in 1916. He idealized his absent father and struggled against his mother and her genteel and (he felt) cold values. “Agee’s mother wanted him to be clean, chaste, and sober,” the photographer ...

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Michael J. Devine

Algren, Nelson (28 March 1909–09 May 1981), writer, was born Nelson Algren Abraham in Detroit, the son of Gershom (later changed to Gerson) Abraham, a machinist and factory worker, and Goldie Kalisher. When Algren was three years old, the family moved to Chicago where he attended public schools. An indifferent student and a class clown, he enjoyed city league sports, especially basketball, and gambling and carousing with his friends. He worked his way through the University of Illinois and graduated in 1931 with a journalism degree....

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Allen, Henry Justin (11 September 1869–17 January 1950), politician and newspaper editor, was born in Pittsfield, Pennsylvania, the son of John Allen, a farmer, and Rebecca Goodwin. In 1870 the Allens settled on a farm in Clay County, Kansas, which they lost in 1879. The family relocated in Osage County, Kansas, where Allen graduated from Burlingame High School. Working as a barber to attend Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, he excelled at forensics, which led to his first newspaper job and forecast his later stature as one of America’s most popular public speakers. While at Baker, he met Elsie Jane Nuzman, and they were married in 1892. Only one of their four children survived to adulthood....

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Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...

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Alvarez, Walter Clement (22 July 1884–16 June 1978), physician, medical researcher, and medical columnist, was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Luis Fernandez Alvarez, a physician, and Clementina Schuetze. When Alvarez was three, his family moved to Hawaii, where his father was a government physician in two isolated Oahu villages. Alvarez was eleven when his father established a Honolulu hospital for lepers and attempted to develop a serum to combat the disease. While assisting his father, Alvarez resolved to become a physician....

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Ames, Fisher (09 April 1758–04 July 1808), Federalist party leader, member of Congress, essayist, and renowned orator, was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel Ames, Sr., a physician, tavern keeper, and almanac writer, and Deborah Fisher. Intellectually honed, Ames was admitted to Harvard at twelve. Steeped in the classics, he excelled in elocution and participated in a debating club, the Institute of 1770. Graduating in 1774, he served with the Dedham militia at the time of the battle of Bunker Hill but did not see combat. At home he pursued his scholarly interests, reading widely in classical literature and history. He also occasionally taught school. Under the tutelage of the prominent ...

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Anderson, Maxwell (15 December 1888–28 February 1959), playwright, was born James Maxwell Anderson on a farm near Atlantic, Pennsylvania, the son of William Lincoln Anderson, a lumberman and later a railroad fireman and Baptist preacher, and Charlotte Perrimela Stephenson. His restless parents moved the family to Andover, Ohio, in 1890; to Richmond Center and then Townville, Pennsylvania; and in 1895 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where Anderson first went to school. They lived in McKeesport, New Brighton, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; moved to Jefferson, Ohio, in 1901; then to Algona, Iowa; and in 1904 to New Hampton, Iowa, where Anderson first attended high school. In 1907 they moved again, to Jamestown, North Dakota. A year later Anderson graduated from high school and entered the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, graduating in 1911. That same year he married Margaret Ethel Haskett; the couple had three children....

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Anderson, Sherwood (13 September 1876–08 March 1941), writer, was born in Camden, Ohio, the son of Irwin McClain Anderson, a harnessmaker, and Emma Jane Smith. For the first thirty-five years of his life, Anderson made himself into just the man that the culture considered ideal. His father was a wayward man, barely able to support his wife and seven children. When Anderson was nineteen his long-suffering mother died, after which, having tried so hard to earn money in Clyde, Ohio, where the family had settled, he became known as “Jobby,” and having completed less than a year of high school in the process, he set out for Chicago in search of his fortune....

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André, John (02 May 1750–02 October 1780), British officer and spy, was born in London, England, the son of Anthony André, a merchant, and Marie Louise Girardot. His early schooling was with a tutor, the Reverend Thomas Newcomb, and he may have attended St. Paul’s School. In his teens André studied mathematics and military drawing at the University of Geneva, giving vent to his romantic temperament by dreaming of a military career. He was rudely brought back to reality by his merchant father when he was called home to work in the countinghouse before he completed a degree. Despising the family business, he nevertheless labored at it manfully for a number of years. After his father died on 14 April 1769, he felt a particular obligation as the eldest son to continue the business, even though his father had left him financially independent, with a small fortune of £5,000. In the summer of 1769 he joined a Lichfield literary group presided over by Anna Seward, a poet. The group included a young lady named Honora Sneyd, for whom he developed a passion. They became engaged and courted for a year and a half before she suddenly rejected him for another man at a Christmas party in 1770. Shattered by this betrayal, André revived his earlier ambition to become a soldier and in early 1771 bought a second lieutenant’s commission in the 23d Regiment, Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Later he purchased a first lieutenancy in the same regiment....

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Arlen, Michael (16 November 1895–23 June 1956), writer, was born Dikran Kouyoumdjian in Ruse, Bulgaria, the son of Sarkis Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian importer. His mother’s name is unknown. In 1901 the family emigrated to Manchester, England. In 1913, after having attended Malvern College in Worcestershire and, briefly, the University of Edinburgh, Arlen settled in London. He began contributing articles to ...

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Asch, Sholem (01 November 1880–10 July 1957), Yiddish novelist, dramatist, and short story writer, was born in Kutno, Poland, a small town near Warsaw, the son of Moishe Asch, a cattle dealer and innkeeper, and Malka Wydawski. Asch was raised in a small town and was essentially self-educated. His father taught him the alphabet from the Bible, which was, as Asch later noted, “the first book that I ever held in my hand” (Siegel, p. 3). The Bible served as his grammar, geography, and history textbooks, as well as a storybook of sorts; later the Scriptures became a source of continual literary inspiration. As an adult Asch became a serious collector of rare biblical editions. He attended local schools to train for the rabbinate, studying the Talmud but also reading German classics and Shakespeare. Finally, against his family’s wishes, Asch made up his mind to become a writer....

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Asimov, Isaac (02 January 1920–06 April 1992), writer, was born in Petrovichi, USSR, the son of Judah Asimov, a merchant, and Anna Rachel Berman. Asimov’s Russian-Jewish father and mother emigrated to New York City in 1923. After a number of years working odd jobs, they bought a candy store in Brooklyn in 1926, the first of many in that borough that Asimov would help run until he was twenty-two years old. Working long hours in the candy store left Asimov’s parents with little time to raise their children. His mother was especially hard on him, frequently hitting him when she lost her temper and reminding him that he was responsible for their hand-to-mouth existence. Asimov was a precocious child who taught himself to read before he was five, and he read omnivorously thereafter. At seven he taught his younger sister to read, “somewhat against her will,” he confesses in his memoir, ...

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Auden, W. H. (21 February 1907–29 September 1973), poet, was born Wystan Hugh Auden in York, England, the son of George Augustus Auden, a physician and public health officer, and Constance Rosalie Bicknell, a nurse. Both his grandfathers were Church of England clergymen. His father was originally in private medical practice; when Auden was eighteen months old, the senior Auden became school medical officer for the city of Birmingham. Thus Auden grew up in a large industrial town and in a family that was comfortably off, though no more than that. His father’s intellectual interests were broad and included history, archeology, and philosophy; his mother was devoutly religious and loved music. Both parents’ interests were reflected in Auden’s later life....

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Baker, Ray Stannard (17 April 1870–12 July 1946), journalist and author, was born in Lansing, Michigan, the son of Joseph Stannard Baker and Alice Potter. A descendant of pioneering stock, he grew up in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, where his family moved in 1875 and his father worked as a land agent. Baker later boasted that he had been brought up on the “last frontier.” His mother died in 1883, but his father, a Civil War veteran, strongly impressed Baker with his rugged character, integrity, and common sense. He attended the local schools, discovered the world of books in his parents’ library, and in 1885 enrolled at Michigan Agricultural College in East Lansing. In college Baker discovered a special liking for science courses and also edited the school newspaper. After receiving the B.S. degree in 1889, he returned home to work in his father’s land office. In January 1892 Baker entered law school at the University of Michigan but dropped out after a few months. Meanwhile, he became interested in journalism, partly as the result of a seminar at the university. In the summer of 1892 he found a job with the Chicago ...

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Baldwin, James (02 August 1924–30 November 1987), author, was born James Arthur Baldwin in Harlem, in New York City, the illegitimate son of Emma Berdis Jones, who married the author’s stepfather, David Baldwin, in 1927. David Baldwin was a laborer and weekend storefront preacher who had an enormous influence on the author’s childhood; his mother was a domestic who had eight more children after he was born. Baldwin was singled out early in school for his intelligence, and at least one white teacher, Orrin Miller, took a special interest in him. At PS 139, Frederick Douglass Junior High School, Baldwin met black poet ...

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Barrett, John (28 November 1866–17 October 1938), commercial publicist and diplomat, was born in Grafton, Vermont, the son of Charles Barrett and Caroline Sanford. His father, reportedly shy and withdrawn, served for a time as a town official and a Republican state legislator but devoted most of his life to artistic pursuits. His mother, who was more outgoing, had a lively regard for politics, law, journalism, theology, and economics, and Barrett’s letters to her suggest she strongly influenced him....

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Bate, Walter Jackson (23 May 1918–26 July 1999), biographer and literary critic, was born in Mankato, Minnesota, the son of William G. Bate, a high school principal, and his wife, Isabel Melick Bate. The second of five children, he experienced two major crises while growing up in Mankato: at the age of four he was hit by a car and suffered permanent damage to his nervous system; and with the advent of the Great Depression seven years later his father's salary was cut in half, creating financial hardship for the family. To make matters worse, the elder Bate, a staunch Republican, was fired from his job altogether following the Democratic sweep in the elections of 1932. Despite the family's limited means, Walter's father urged his sons to get the best education possible, which to him meant attending an Ivy League college. Walter chose Harvard because of its proximity to Boston, where he could find work, and he enrolled there in the fall of 1935 with the intention of studying English literature....

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Baum, L. Frank (15 May 1856–06 May 1919), children's author, journalist, and playwright, children’s author, journalist, and playwright, was born Lyman Frank Baum in Chittenango, New York, the son of Benjamin Ward Baum, a cooper and sawyer who had made a fortune in Pennsylvania oil, and Cynthia Stanton. He grew up on the family estate, “Roselawn,” outside Syracuse, New York. Suffering from a congenitally weak heart, he was educated at home. A stay at Peekskill Military Academy beginning in 1868—which gave Baum a lifelong antipathy to academics and the military—ended less than two years later in his having a heart attack. Back home, he published a family newspaper and periodicals on stamp collecting and the breeding of fancy chickens. In 1881 he studied theater in New York City and joined a repertory company, then managed an opera house in Richburg, New York, from 1881 to 1882, and, with his father’s financing, toured successfully with ...

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Bellamy, Edward (26 March 1850–22 May 1898), novelist, was born in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, the son of Rufus King Bellamy, a Baptist minister, and Maria Putnam. One of four children raised in a strict Calvinist household, he was educated at local schools and briefly attended Union College in Schenectady, New York. As a young man, he developed a strong social interest in poverty, unemployment, and other ill effects of industrialization, which he presumably witnessed not only in the mill towns of western Massachusetts but also in Europe, where he lived for a year in 1868....

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Benchley, Robert (15 September 1889–21 November 1945), humorist, drama critic, and actor, was born Robert Charles Benchley in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Charles H. Benchley, the mayor’s clerk, and Maria Jane Moran. After the death of his older brother Edmund in the Spanish-American War, an event that stunned Benchley’s family, Edmund’s fiancée, Lillian Duryea, largely financed Robert’s education. Benchley attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where his bent for satire early revealed itself when his assigned essay on “a practical subject,” embalming, earned an ...