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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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Lippard, George (10 April 1822–09 February 1854), novelist and social reformer, was born on his father’s farm in West Nantmeal Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the son of Daniel B. Lippard and Jemima Ford. His father, an erstwhile schoolteacher and local official, sold his farm in 1824 and moved the family to nearby Germantown, where George’s German-speaking grandfather was living. Having become physically incapable of supporting a large family, the parents moved to Philadelphia, leaving George and his sisters in Germantown in the care of their grandfather and two maiden aunts. A sickly and intense youth, Lippard was considered a “queer” fellow “of no account” by some of his mates at the Concord School across from his home, which he attended from around 1829 to 1832....

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Sinclair, Upton (20 September 1878–25 November 1968), novelist, reformer, and politician, was born Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr., in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Upton Beall Sinclair, Sr., a wholesale liquor salesman, and Priscilla Harden. Sinclair’s father was irresponsible and alcoholic and left the boy’s care to his mother, who encouraged him to read. In 1886 or 1887 the family moved to New York City, where in 1889 Sinclair attended public school classes for the first time. During the next two years he completed eight elementary grades and in 1892 enrolled in the City College of New York. In 1894 he began to sell jokes and puzzles to children’s periodicals and a year later was selling stories to juvenile magazines to support himself. He graduated from City College with a B.A. in 1897, abandoned an ambition to become a lawyer, and enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University, all the while writing almost a hundred “half-dime” novels for Street and Smith, America’s leading pulp-fiction publisher. Attracted to courses in music, contemporary politics, and poetry, especially that of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sinclair decided to become an influential man of letters. In May 1900 he left Columbia without a graduate degree, rented a cabin for three months in southern Quebec, and wrote an idealistic novel, ...