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John Dos Passos. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-117477).

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Dos Passos, John (14 January 1896–28 September 1970), writer, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of John Randolph Dos Passos, a lawyer, and Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison. His parents were married in 1910, when his father’s first wife died, and in 1912 the boy took his father’s name of Dos Passos; before that he was known as John Roderigo Madison. As an illegitimate child he had lived a rootless life, traveling much in Europe with his mother. She died in 1915. The necessary secrecy of his boyhood, the mixture of admiration and fear Dos Passos felt toward his powerful father—who was both an important corporate lawyer and the author of books on trusts and the stock market—and his dependence on his beautiful, often unhappy southern mother affected him deeply. A timid boy, Dos Passos found excitement in reading, studying languages, and observing the art of the time; he discovered his greatest joy in writing. His early poems, with those of ...

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Charles Fenno Hoffman. Engraving by John Sartain. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-99504).

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Hoffman, Charles Fenno (07 February 1806–07 June 1884), writer and editor, was born in New York City, the son of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, a prominent judge, and his second wife, Maria Fenno. At the age of eleven, Hoffman was seriously injured in an accident along the New York docks, resulting in the amputation of his right leg above the knee. In spite of the accident, he was an avid athlete and outdoorsman. In 1821 he entered Columbia College, where he was active in student life but never rose above the bottom fifth of his class. He left Columbia after two years, and in 1823 he began to study law in the Albany office of Harmanus Bleeker. Admitted to the bar in 1827, he returned to New York and began to practice law. Soon after, he began contributing essays, reviews, and poems to the ...

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Washington Irving. Pictured at age twenty-seven. Engraving by J. de Mare. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-95735).

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Irving, Washington (03 April 1783–28 November 1859), author, was born in New York City, the son of William Irving, a Scottish merchant, and his English wife, Sarah Sanders, who had emigrated to America in 1763. A middle-class family of very modest means, the Irvings gradually prospered in the economic expansion that followed the American Revolution. In time the father’s business, heavily dependent on imports from England and France, became the family business, in which his five sons were involved in varying degrees at various times. Irving was the youngest child, and his mother and three sisters lavished affection and attention on him in his early years. The father, however, a Presbyterian deacon and elder, dominated the family until his death in 1807, imposing on the household a strict religious discipline, which his youngest son strongly resisted. Although Irving was interested in literature from an early age, authorship in the United States was generally seen as at best an avocation. Thus in 1799 he began an apprenticeship with a lawyer, partly as an escape from the family business. But literary pursuits, a troublesome lung condition, and social distractions delayed his qualifying for the bar for several years....

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Ruxton, George Augustus Frederick (24 July 1821–29 August 1848), soldier, adventurer, and author, was born in Eynsham Hall, Oxfordshire, England, the son of John Ruxton, an army surgeon, and Anna Maria Hay. On 14 July 1835 Ruxton became a cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. After about two years at the academy, Ruxton was apparently expelled and subsequently traveled to Spain, where he participated for a time in that country’s civil war as a cornet of lancers in the British Auxiliary Legion, a unit serving with forces loyal to Queen Isabella II. For his distinguished actions at the Battle of the Bridge of Belascoain, 29 April–1 May 1839, the queen of Spain awarded Ruxton the Cross of the First Class of the National Military Order of San Fernando....

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Vincent Sheean. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1958. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103676).

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Sheean, Vincent (05 December 1899–15 March 1975), journalist and author, was born James Vincent Sheean in Pana, Illinois, the son of William Charles Sheean and Susan MacDermot; he was nicknamed Jimmy. After high school in Pana, he attended the University of Chicago from 1916 to 1920, taking courses in English literature, Romance languages, history, and philosophy, and worked on the school newspaper. When his mother died in 1921, he lacked funds to continue at the university and, without a degree, moved to Greenwich Village in New York, where he became a reporter for the ...

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Smith, Francis Hopkinson (23 October 1838–07 April 1915), mechanical engineer, writer, and artist, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Francis Smith, a musician, mathematician, and philosopher, and Susan Teakle. Smith was reared in the genteel society of old Baltimore, where he studied for entrance to Princeton University. Smith’s family suffered economic ruin, however, and he never attended college. Before the Civil War he held jobs in a hardware store and an ironworks. Around 1858 he moved to New York City, where, after some training with a partner named James Symington, he set up an engineering firm. Over the years he increasingly complemented this enterprise with his work in the fine arts and as a speaker. He was usually thought of, and perhaps thought of himself, as a southern gentleman. In 1866 Smith married Josephine Van Deventer of Astoria, New York. They had two children....

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Bayard Taylor. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92338).

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Taylor, Bayard (11 January 1825–19 December 1878), writer, was born in Kennett Square, Chester County, Pennsylvania, the son of Joseph Taylor and Rebecca Way, farmers. He was raised in an orderly Quaker household of quiet discipline, but, being a prodigious reader and student, he felt constrained by the provincial farming life of Chester County. His studies of languages and literature at Bolmar’s and Unionville academies only intensified his restlessness, and while still a high-school student Taylor published his first poem in 1841 with the ...

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Warner, Charles Dudley (12 September 1829–20 October 1900), author and editor, was born in Plainfield, Massachusetts, the son of Justus Warner and Sylvia Hitchcock, farmers. In 1837, three years after her husband died, Sylvia Warner took her two sons to a guardian in Charlemont, Massachusetts, and, in 1841, on to her brother in Cazenovia, New York. Warner attended classes at the Oneida Conference Seminary in Cazenovia, enrolled at Hamilton College, and graduated in 1851 with a B.A. While still a student he published articles in the ...