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Maxwell Bodenheim. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-112040).

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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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Bukowski, Charles (16 August 1920–09 March 1994), poet and novelist, was born Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., in Andernach, Germany, the son of Henry Charles Bukowski, an American soldier, and Katherine Fett. His father moved the family to Los Angeles when Bukowski, an only child, was two years old. Henry, Sr., held various jobs, including delivering milk and working as a museum guard, though he was often unemployed. Katherine Bukowski supplemented the family income by working as a housecleaner. Bukowski attended local public schools, including Mount Vernon Junior High School and Los Angeles High School on Olympic Boulevard. His early years were made difficult by his strict and overbearing father, who frequently beat him with a razor strop for minor infractions such as poor performance in school or failure to mow the front lawn with precision. To make matters worse, not long after starting high school, Bukowski developed a severe case of acne, which covered his face, neck, and body. It became so serious that he was briefly removed from school and taken to Los Angeles County Hospital, where doctors treated him with ultraviolet light and drained his boils with electric needles. With few close friends, Bukowski began a life of hard drinking while still in his teens. He found solace in the local public libraries, where he discovered ...

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Calkins, Clinch (15 July 1895–26 December 1968), poet, polemicist, and novelist, was born Marion Clinch Calkins in Evansville, Wisconsin, the daughter of Judson Wells Calkins, a politically liberal owner of a general store, and Julia Clinch, a lover of music and literature. Calkins graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1918, packed artillery shells in a Milwaukee plant, and then returned to Madison to teach in the university’s English and art history departments and to do social work. She submitted a poem, “I Was a Maiden,” to an annual competition in the ...

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Corrington, John William (28 October 1932–24 November 1988), short story writer, novelist, and poet, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of John Wesley Corrington, an insurance adjuster, and Viva Shelley. In 1942 the family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he began his formal education in the third grade....

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Kenneth Fearing Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-108026).

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Fearing, Kenneth Flexner (28 July 1902–26 June 1961), poet and novelist, was born in Oak Park, Illinois, the son of Henry Lester Fearing, an attorney, and Olive Flexner, a newspaper reporter. Within a year of Fearing’s birth, his mother had left her “unfulfilling” life in the suburbs, returned to Chicago, and divorced his father. Although she did have joint custody, she relinquished this right, and Kenneth was raised from infancy by his father and his father’s unmarried sister Eva. He attended local schools and graduated from Oak Park-River Forest Township High School in 1920. Like his famous predecessor ...

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Heyward, DuBose (31 August 1885–16 June 1940), novelist, dramatist, and poet, was born Edwin DuBose Heyward in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Edwin Watkins Heyward, a mill hand from an old and distinguished southern family ruined after the Civil War, and Jane Screven DuBose, also descended from once-prosperous plantation owners. His father died when Heyward was two, and his mother was reduced to taking in sewing to support the family. He attended a private school until he was nine and entered public school in the fourth grade but was, as he later described himself, “a miserable student,” uninterested in schoolwork. He dropped out in his first year of high school, at the age of fourteen, to work as a clerk in a hardware store and later worked among African-American stevedores as a checker for a steamship company. Often sick as a child, he got polio when he was eighteen; two years later he contracted typhoid fever and the next year pleurisy. At twenty-one, Heyward and his friend Henry T. O’Neill organized a real estate and insurance company. A skilled salesman of great personal charm, he succeeded in making himself financially independent....

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Hillyer, Robert Silliman (03 June 1895–24 December 1961), poet, novelist, and critic, was born in East Orange, New Jersey, the son of James Rankin Hillyer and Lillian Stanley Smith. After graduating from the Kent School, he entered Harvard College. In 1916, while still an undergraduate, he won Harvard’s Garrison Prize for poetry and published his first poem in the ...

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James Weldon Johnson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-42992).

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Johnson, James Weldon (17 June 1871–26 June 1938), civil-rights leader, poet, and novelist, was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of James Johnson, a resort hotel headwaiter, and Helen Dillet, a schoolteacher. He grew up in a secure, middle-class home in an era, Johnson recalled in ...

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Jones, James Athearn (17 October 1791–07 July 1854), novelist, poet, and folklorist, was born in Tisbury, on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the son of Ebenezer Jones, a farmer, and Susanna Athearn, the daughter of a county probate judge in Tisbury. Several bands of Gay Head Indians lived within a few miles of the Joneses. Young Jones’s grandfather had a lonely coastal farm, where the boy was born and lived, where Indians were employed as field hands, and where an Indian nurse cared for him until he was fifteen. Her stories about fabulous Indians inspired his lifelong fascination with Native-American folklore. Denied formal schooling by the remoteness of his home, he read voraciously and studied under ministers at Tisbury and nearby Edgartown. He visited the West Indies on a few occasions and also sold or bartered food and other items with sailors anchored off Martha’s Vineyard. Jones has been described as tall, slender, a little vain and quarrelsome, and in later years slightly deaf....

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Kerouac, Jack (12 March 1922–21 October 1969), novelist and poet, was born Jean-Louis Lebris Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of Leo Kerouac, a printer, and Gabrielle Levesque, a laborer in shoe factories. Kerouac’s “first tongue was the Franco-American joual,” an “Anglicized, abbreviated and musical form of French spoken by the Quebecois of the Saint Lawrence Valley and by the waves of their descendants who came down to New England mill towns and built a separate culture” (Clark, p. 3). In 1926 Kerouac’s older brother Gerard died at age nine from rheumatic fever. An “extraordinary child” who was “both gentle and outgoing” (Nicosia, p. 25), Gerard’s spiritual resignation to his suffering convinced both his mother and the nuns who taught him at the St. Louis de France parish school that he was destined for sainthood. Kerouac began to learn English under the tutelage of the same nuns; he would remain forever haunted by the memory of Gerard and the mystery of death....

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Krause, Herbert Arthur (25 May 1905–22 September 1976), novelist, English professor, poet, and naturalist, was born near Friberg, Minnesota, the son of Arthur Krause, a farmer and blacksmith, and Bertha Peters. Krause’s parents were first-generation descendants of devout German immigrants who settled as farmers in the hill country north of Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Their folkways and fundamentalist Lutheran religion were important concerns in his first two novels....

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Lewis, Janet (17 August 1899–01 December 1998), poet and novelist, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Edwin Herbert Lewis, a novelist, poet, and teacher, and Elizabeth Taylor Lewis, who also taught college-level English. Lewis credited her father with being the first to teach her the fundamentals of style in writing poetry. The family spent most summers on Neebish Island in northern Michigan, where Lewis learned the history and legends of the Indians of the area. Her interest in Native Americans and her friendship with Molly Johnston, whose grandmother Neengay was the daughter of an Ojibway chief, is reflected in Lewis's early poetry and in her first novel, ...

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McHenry, James (20 December 1785–21 July 1845), poet, novelist, and literary critic, was born in Larne, County Antrim, Ireland, the son of George McHenry and Mary Smiley. Little can be ascertained about his early life. Like Alexander Pope, in whose neoclassical tradition McHenry was to place himself, he was hunchbacked, the deformity probably being the result of a spinal injury in his boyhood. Early biographical accounts say that he held degrees in both theology and medicine. A poem dated 21 October 1810, “On Leaving Ireland for the University of Glasgow,” refers to his pursuit of science as the reason for leaving Ireland, although neither the University of Glasgow nor the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons has any record of his studying medicine in Glasgow. It is possible that he gained his medical knowledge as an apprentice to a practicing physician, a common practice of the day....

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Claude McKay. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105919).

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McKay, Claude (15 September 1890–22 May 1948), poet, novelist, and journalist, was born Festus Claudius McKay in Sunny Ville, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, the son of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, farmers. The youngest of eleven children, McKay was sent at an early age to live with his oldest brother, a schoolteacher, so that he could be given the best education available. An avid reader, McKay began to write poetry at the age of ten. In 1906 he decided to enter a trade school, but when the school was destroyed by an earthquake he became apprenticed to a carriage and cabinetmaker; a brief period in the constabulary followed. In 1907 McKay came to the attention of Walter Jekyll, an English gentleman residing in Jamaica who became his mentor, encouraging him to write dialect verse. Jekyll later set some of McKay’s verse to music. By the time he immigrated to the United States in 1912, McKay had established himself as a poet, publishing two volumes of dialect verse, ...

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Herman Melville. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-39759).

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Melville, Herman (01 August 1819–28 September 1891), novelist and poet, was born in New York City, the son of Allan Melvill (as the name was spelled), an importer of Parisian dry goods, and Maria Gansevoort. The Melvill family was connected to Scottish nobility; Maria was the daughter of General ...