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Arenas, Reinaldo (16 July 1943–07 December 1990), novelist and political activist, was born in Holguín, a town in rural eastern Cuba, the son of Oneida Fuentes, a poor peasant woman, and a peasant father who abandoned his unborn child. Barely sixteen years old at the time of the Cuban Revolution, Arenas received excellent instruction during the Campaigns against Illiteracy conducted by volunteers sympathetic to Fidel Castro’s ideals. Such an opportunity for self-improvement was unheard of during the regime of the deposed leader, Fulgencio Batista. In 1960 Arenas received a scholarship so that he might pursue a career in accounting in Havana....

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Burdick, Eugene Leonard (12 Dec. 1918–26 July 1965), novelist and political scientist, was born in Sheldon, Iowa, to John J. Burdick, an Irish immigrant house painter, and Marie Ellerbroek Burdick. His father died when he was four, and two years later his mother, of Dutch descent, married Fritz Gaillard, an émigré cellist from the Netherlands. The family moved to Los Angeles, where Gaillard played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. From childhood onward, Burdick excelled in both academics and sports. After attending classes at Santa Monica and Santa Barbara junior colleges, he enrolled as a scholarship student at Stanford University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in psychology in ...

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Cahill, Holger (13 January 1887–08 July 1960), author and curator, was born Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarson, in Snifellsnessyslu, Iceland, the son of Björn Bjarnarson, a laborer, and Vigdis Bjarnadóttir. Cahill, however, later claimed he was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1893. In the 1890s the Bjarnarsons emigrated to North Dakota, where they hoped to obtain land. Unable to purchase property, Björn worked as a hired hand. Vigdis, whom Cahill later described as a stern “peasant woman” with a poetic streak, and Björn, “a failure in almost everything he did,” quarreled frequently, separating when Cahill was eleven. Struggling to support her son and his younger sister after Björn departed, Vigdis sent the boy to live with an Icelandic family on a nearby farm. After the family removed him from school, put him to work in the fields, and pressured him to be confirmed in the Lutheran church, he ran away. Settled with another family, Cahill finished high school and then set off for Canada, where he worked as a farm laborer and cowherder. By 1907 he was back in the United States, holding a job as a railroad clerk in St. Paul. While there, he later recalled that he read “Tolstoi by the acre” and took a correspondence course in journalism. This was followed by short stints as a watchman on a Great Lakes steamer and as an insurance salesman in Cleveland....

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Chateaubriand, François-René de (04 September 1768–04 July 1848), writer and statesman, was born in Saint-Malo, Brittany, the son of René-Auguste Chateaubriand and Apolline de Bedée. Chateaubriand’s well-educated mother came from a noble family in nearby Plancoët. His father, a descendant of illustrious ancestors, not only had restored the family fortune by serving as a gentleman corsair but in 1761 had also bought both the castle of Combourg and the title of vicomte de Combourg. The cold, turreted castle and its beautiful natural surroundings would leave a lasting impression on the boy, the youngest of six surviving children....

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Churchill, Winston (10 November 1871–12 March 1947), novelist and politician, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Emma Bell Blaine and Edward S. Churchill. His mother died shortly after his birth. Left in the care of his maternal grandmother until her death two years later, he was a short time thereafter taken in and raised by his mother’s half sister, Louisa Blaine Gazzam, and her husband, James Braiding Gazzam, who lived in genteel poverty. Two manuscripts written later in his life (Jonathan and Gideon mss., Baker Library) demonstrate the influence of Churchill’s upbringing on both his personal life and his novels. The absolute standards that the Gazzams instilled in him left him with lifelong feelings of guilt and inadequacy....

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Jeremiah Clemens. Daguerreotype from the studio of Mathew B. Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-109966).

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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....

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Curtis, George William (25 February 1824–31 August 1892), writer, editor, and orator, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of George Curtis, a banker and businessman, and Mary Elizabeth Burrill, whose father had been a U.S. senator from and chief justice of Rhode Island. After his mother died in 1826, Curtis and his older brother James Burrill Curtis were cared for by their father and relatives for four years and then attended a boarding school in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts. In 1835 their father married Julia B. Bridgham, aged twenty-four, and the boys joined them in Providence. Four years later the family moved to New York City, where Curtis was tutored for a short time and then became a counting-house clerk. He and his brother participated in the Brook Farm communal experiment at West Roxbury, outside Boston (1842–1843), returned home for a year, and became farmhands in Concord (1844–1846). During these years, Curtis made enormous intellectual strides through contact with ...

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Daggett, Rollin Mallory (22 February 1831–12 November 1901), journalist, congressman, minister to Hawaii, and author, was born in Richville, New York, the son of Eunice White and Gardner Daggett, farmers. Daggett was the youngest of seven children, the other six being girls. After his mother’s death in 1833, the family moved to Defiance, Ohio, in 1837. In 1849 Daggett became a printer, learning a trade which endowed him with an education and influenced his later choice of a journalistic career....

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Digges, Thomas Attwood (04 July 1742–06 December 1821), gentleman, confidential agent, ne'er-do-well, and novelist, gentleman, confidential agent, ne’er-do-well, and novelist, was born in Warburton, Maryland, the son of William Digges and Ann Attwood, the owners of “Warburton Manor.” Digges was sent abroad to be educated. Family tradition holds that he attended Oxford University, but his Catholic faith and the absence of his name in university records make this unlikely. In 1767, after being disowned by his family for reasons that are not known, Digges purportedly went to live in Portugal, where he stayed until 1773 or 1774. In a subsequent letter to ...

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Fay, Theodore Sedgwick (10 February 1807–24 November 1898), author and diplomat, was born in New York, the son of Joseph Dewey Fay, a practicing attorney, and Caroline Broome. After receiving a liberal education, he read law with and became a clerk for his father. When Joseph Fay died in 1825 Theodore’s interest in the law began to wane. Although he was admitted to the New York bar in 1828, he gave up law the same year, responding to the call of literary diversions to join ...

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Flagg, Edmund (24 November 1815–01 November 1890), author and civil servant, was born in Wiscasset, Maine, the son of Edmund Flagg and Harriet Payson. He graduated with distinction from Bowdoin College in 1835. Later that year he moved with his widowed mother and sister to Louisville, Kentucky, where he briefly taught the classics in a boys’ school. The following summer, he explored the Illinois and Missouri prairies and published in the ...

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Galt, John (02 May 1779–11 April 1839), author, lobbyist, and businessman, was born in Irvine, Scotland, the son of John Galt, a shipmaster and trader, and Jean Thomson. Galt left school to begin a career as a merchant at about age sixteen (one of his schoolmates was ...

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Gill, Brendan (04 October 1914–27 December 1997), writer and preservationist, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Michael Gill, a physician, and Elizabeth Duffy Gill. (His parents did not give him a middle name, but he later took the middle name “Michael” in honor of his father.) Although his mother died when he was seven years old, he later recalled that he had a happy childhood in a prosperous Irish-Catholic household: “My father … had not the slightest idea what to do with us children, except to supply us with houses, servants, money, trips to Europe, extravagant gifts, admiration, and love” ( ...

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Gold, Michael (12 April 1893–14 May 1967), radical intellectual and writer, was born Itzok Isaac Granich on the Lower East Side of New York City, son of Chaim Granich and Gittel Schwartz, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a storefront manufacturer of suspenders and a peddler but remained destitute all his life. Forced by economic stringency to leave school at age twelve, Mike Gold (at this point calling himself Irwin Granich) held a variety of jobs including night porter and clerk. He said he “had no politics … except hunger,” until he was nineteen. But Gold was radicalized in 1914 when he witnessed and experienced police beatings at a demonstration by the unemployed at Union Square in New York City....

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Heath, James Ewell (08 July 1792–28 June 1862), author and politician, was born in Virginia, probably in Northumberland County, the son of John Heath, first president of Phi Beta Kappa, and Sarah Ewell. Little is known about his early life. During 1814–1817 Heath represented Prince William County in the Virginia General Assembly, in his third term serving as a member of the Privy Council. In 1819 he became state auditor, a post he held for thirty years. From 1850 to 1853, he served as commissioner of pensions in President ...

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Kennedy, John Pendleton (25 October 1795–18 August 1870), politician and writer, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of John Kennedy, an Irish immigrant and intermittently successful copper merchant, and Nancy Clayton Pendleton, who was descended from a distinguished tidewater Virginia family that included the well-known jurist ...

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Lewisohn, Ludwig (30 May 1883–31 December 1955), writer and translator, was born to acculturated Jewish parents, Minna Eloesser and Jacques Lewisohn, in Berlin. His father, a ne’er-do-well businessman, settled the family in a South Carolina village, where Minna Lewisohn had relatives, in 1890. But Lewisohn spent most of his childhood in Charleston where, he recalled, he strove to “forget his Jewish and his German past” and be accepted as “an American, a Southerner, and a Christian.” Graduating in 1901 from the College of Charleston with both a B.A. and an M.A., he began graduate studies in English literature at Columbia University in New York City, where in 1903 he earned another M.A. In New York he began to affirm his German and, ultimately, his Jewish origins. He was plagued by the anti-Semitism and xenophobia of American university life at that time, but as instructor of German at the University of Wisconsin (1910–1911) and subsequently as professor of German language and literature at Ohio State University (1911–1919) he established his credentials as a prime interpreter of modern European, especially German, literature....

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William Douglas O'Connor. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98112).

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O’Connor, William Douglas (02 January 1832–09 May 1889), author and civil servant, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Peter D. O’Connor, a laborer (mother’s name unknown). O’Connor left home at age eight, after an argument with his father. Except for that incident, nothing is known about his childhood or education. In the 1850s he came under the sway of the Providence, Rhode Island, poet ...