Highlights of the latest update
The American National Biography (ANB) has long contended that the best way to explain the history of a nation is through the lives of its people. What better way to do this than by featuring biographies of the people who have told the nation’s stories? This month’s update focuses on writers, editors, and poets whose work has shaped American culture.
Writing and editing can serve artistic and political ends simultaneously. Studs Terkel spent his long career as an oral historian making sure that we knew the history of working people in their own words. The poetry of boxer and political activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales not only allowed him to examine his own Mexican American heritage, but it also sounded a clarion call for the burgeoning Chicano Movement. Barbara Gittings edited The Ladder, the journal of the gay rights organization the Daughters of Bilitis, and then helped organize gay members of the American Library Association. She promoted more favorable representations of LGBT people, a goal shared by the poet and spoken word artist Pat Parker.
Of course, not all writers were motivated by politics. Maxine Kumin’s poetry earned her an appointment as Consultant in Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (now commonly known as Poet Laureate of the United States), and James Schulyer’s poems earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Paul Engle is notable both for his own poetry and for his years of training other poets at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And just as food shows proliferate television programming today, American writers have long turned to food—not only its taste but also its history and cultural impact—as a lens into larger society. Elizabeth Robins Pennell emerged as a foremost food writer and cookbook collector at the turn of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1950s, Poppy Cannon wrote cookbooks along with poetry and articles on fashion, travel, and race.
We’re also featuring writers who aimed their work at younger readers. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is recognized as a classic by Americans of all ages. Ursula Nordstrom, as children’s book editor at Harper & Row for over thirty years, shaped the readings of a generation of parents and children. The cartoonist William Steig also began writing for children later in his career.
Finally, it’s important to note the significance of genre fiction. The crime novel in particular has excited Americans for decades, and millions have eagerly gobbled up the works of Robert B. Parker, the creator of the Spenser series.
We hope you enjoy this update, and please check back in with us for new essays next month.
-- Rob Heinrich, Research Editor
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