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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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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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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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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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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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Bierce, Ambrose Gwinnett (24 June 1842–1914?), author and journalist, was born in the Horse Cave settlement in Meigs County, Ohio, the son of Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood, farmers. The family was poor and moved several times, eventually settling in Elkhart, Indiana. His parents were strongly evangelical Protestant, but Bierce early resented his religious indoctrination and moved toward agnosticism. He briefly attended the Kentucky Military Institute in 1859. He enlisted at once in the Union army when the Civil War began in 1861 and was soon appointed a sergeant. He was later commissioned a second lieutenant and had risen to first lieutenant when invalided out of the army because of wounds in January 1865. He was brevetted major by President ...

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Bodenheim, Maxwell (26 May 1892–07 February 1954), poet, critic, and novelist, was born in Hermanville, Mississippi, the son of Solomon Bodenheimer and Caroline Herman. An emigrant from Alsace, Solomon Bodenheimer never found financial or professional security; his career included stints as a traveling whiskey salesman and unsuccessful forays into clothing stores and men’s haberdashery. The daughter of a distinguished and wealthy surgeon, Caroline Bodenheimer came from a milieu that was vastly different from that of her husband. Indeed, the town of Hermanville itself obtained its name from Caroline Bodenheimer’s uncle, M. B. Herman, who had founded the town and established a small mercantile empire there. Caroline’s tales of lost prosperity provided a bitter contrast to the impoverished world in which Maxwell Bodenheim was reared....

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Bontemps, Arna Wendell (13 October 1902–04 June 1973), writer, was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, the son of Paul Bismark Bontemps, a bricklayer, and Maria Carolina Pembroke, a schoolteacher. He was reared in Los Angeles, where his family moved when he was three. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, in 1923....

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Edward Halsey Foster

Brautigan, Richard (30 January 1935– September 1984), writer, was born in Tacoma, Washington, the son of Bernard F. Brautigan, a laborer, and Lula May Keho. Richard Brautigan’s parents were divorced before he was born, and he never knew his father. Reared by his mother and a series of stepfathers, he had a traumatic childhood. He was deplorably treated and abandoned three times, on one occasion coming home from school to find his mother had disappeared, taking his sister with her. Neighbors discovered her whereabouts and gave him the money to follow her. When he was a young man, he was briefly confined to a mental hospital....

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Bromfield, Louis (27 December 1896–18 March 1956), novelist, experimental farmer, and newspaper columnist, was born in Mansfield, Ohio, the son of Charles Bromfield, a banker and local Democratic office holder, and Annette Marie Coulter. His father was from an old New England family, and his mother was the daughter of a pioneer family of Richland County, Ohio; both ancestries would influence his later fiction. Bromfield attended Mansfield public schools, spending summers on his mother’s family’s farm. In 1914–1915 he studied agriculture at Cornell University and then briefly attended Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. He then studied journalism at Columbia University until his enlistment in the U.S. Army Ambulance Service in June 1917. He served with Section 577, attached to the French army, from December 1917 to February 1919. He participated in seven major battles during World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He was discharged in June 1919 while still in France....

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Butler, Ellis Parker (05 December 1869–13 September 1937), author and humorist, was born in Muscatine, Iowa, the eldest of eight children of Audley Gazzam Butler, a pork packer, and Adela Vesey. At the age of seventeen he left Muscatine High School after one year for a job as a billing clerk and salesman at Muscatine Spice Mill to help support his family. He later held similar jobs at an oatmeal mill, a crockery shop, and, for his last years in Muscatine, a wholesale grocery store where his father, whose pork business had failed, was a bookkeeper....

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Cabell, James Branch (14 April 1879–05 May 1958), author, was born in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Robert Gamble Cabell II, a physician, and Anne Branch. He traced his roots on his mother’s side to seventeenth-century Jamestown, Virginia, to which his ancestors came from England. In time, the Cabells became one of the most prominent families in the commonwealth. Cabell’s great-grandfather was a governor of Virginia, and his grandfather was a personal physician to Confederate general ...

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Cable, George Washington (12 October 1844–31 January 1925), author, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of businessman George Washington Cable, Sr., and Rebecca Boardman. His parents were originally northerners, and this fact contributed ultimately to accusations in the southern press that Cable did not present the South accurately in his writings. In fact, Cable was deeply immersed in both the contemporary life and the rich history of Louisiana, and he was particularly sensitive to the complex interactions of race, gender, and economics in the Deep South....

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Sylvia Jenkins Cook

Caldwell, Erskine (17 December 1903–11 April 1987), writer, was born Erskine Preston Caldwell in White Oak, Coweta County, Georgia, the son of Ira Sylvester Caldwell, a minister, and Caroline Bell, a teacher. Caldwell much later believed that being brought up as a minister’s son in the Deep South was “my good fortune in life,” for his family’s frequent moves to different congregations in the region gave him an intimate knowledge of the people, localities, and ways of life that would inform his fiction and documentary writing. As a youth he observed, with his father’s active encouragement, the “antics and motivations” of the southern poor in their pursuit of material and spiritual satisfaction. He noted the quirks of sexual, social, and race relationships in the world around him and listened avidly to stories told in his family and community. Eventually he decided that his main goal in life was to become a storyteller himself....

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Capote, Truman (30 September 1924–25 August 1984), writer, was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, the son of Arch Persons, a salesman and drifter, and sixteen-year-old Lillie Mae “Nina” Faulk. His parents’ turbulent marriage dissolved when Truman was six. After his mother entered business colleges in Selma, Alabama, and Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1929, Truman—who had been neglected and psychologically abused—was relegated a year later to her distant cousins in Monroeville, Alabama, population 1,355. “This was a very strange household,” he commented once. “It consisted of three elderly ladies and an elderly uncle. They were the people who had adopted my mother—her own parents had died when she was very young. I lived there until I was ten, and it was a very lonely life, and it was then that I became interested in writing” (Roy Newquist, ...

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Carr, John Dickson (30 November 1906–27 February 1977), writer of mystery and detective novels, was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of Wooda Nicholas Carr, a lawyer, Democratic congressman (1913–1915), and then U.S. postmaster for Uniontown, and Amanda Julia Cook. A precocious child, he gained a name among his father’s colleagues in the lower house of Congress by reciting poetry from table tops at age eight. His impulsive activities continued through college, where he devoted less energy to law, his supposed course of study, than to developing his talent for investigative journalism, an interest perhaps spurred by the combined influence of his father’s law office and his grandfather’s part ownership of a newspaper. He is particularly remembered for staging fake murders, complete with “dead bodies,” to lure the police. Nonetheless, he graduated from Haverford College in 1928 and moved to Paris, where he attended the Sorbonne....

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Clemens, Jeremiah (28 December 1814–21 May 1865), politician and novelist, was born in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of James Clemens, a merchant. His mother’s maiden name was Mills, but her first name is unknown. Clemens spent the formative years of his life in the northern Alabama upcountry town of Huntsville with his affluent family. He entered La Grange College in 1830, but in 1831 he moved to the newly opened University of Alabama, graduating in 1833. He also spent a year studying law at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1834 he married Mary Read; they had one child....