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Adams, Abigail (11 November 1744–28 October 1818), first lady and woman of intellect, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the daughter of William Smith, a Congregational minister, and Elizabeth Quincy. Abigail grew up in a prominent and wealthy family, descended from Puritan leaders and successful merchants. She had no formal schooling, both because of her recurrent illnesses and the limited options available to girls. Yet neither obstacle prevented her from achieving a remarkably broad and sophisticated education. She enjoyed the family’s well-stocked library, the stimulating company of educated relatives and parsonage visitors, and the attentive tutelage of her grandmother. Her studies ranged from Shakespeare to Locke, from Plato to French. She also began two lifelong habits: letter-writing to distant relatives and friends, and the practice of a deep Congregational faith....

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Adams, Harriet Chalmers (22 October 1875–17 July 1937), explorer, lecturer, and writer, was born Harriet Chalmers in Stockton, California. Her father, Alexander Chalmers, Canadian via Scotland, came to California in 1864 to try his luck mining; he later ran a dry goods store with his brother before becoming a mine superintendent and part-owner. Her mother, Frances Wilkins, had grown up in the Sierra Nevada foothills. From the age of eleven Harriet and her sister Anna had private tutors. Her mother encouraged Harriet’s love of reading, while travels with her father developed her interest in the natural world as well as the Native American and Spanish-speaking cultures in the region. At thirteen Harriet and her father spent more than six months meandering the length of the Sierras from Oregon to Mexico, cementing her lifelong love of adventure. As a young woman Harriet continued her indoor and outdoor studies and had an active social life. She was fluent in Spanish and spoke Portuguese, French, Italian, and German as well....

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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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Akins, Zoë (30 October 1886–29 October 1958), playwright and screenwriter, was born in Humansville, Missouri, the daughter of Thomas J. Akins, a postmaster, and Elizabeth Green. During Zoë’s childhood, the family moved to St. Louis, where Thomas Akins was postmaster as well as a member of the Republican national committee. At age twelve, Akins was sent to Monticello Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois, and later to Hosmer Hall in St. Louis....

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Alcott, Louisa May (29 November 1832–06 March 1888), author, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator and philosopher, and Abigail May, the energetic, philanthropic daughter of a prominent liberal Boston family. Louisa grew up in Concord and Boston, suffering from poverty as a result of her selfish idealist father’s inability to support his family. Bronson Alcott habitually sacrificed his wife and daughters by refusing to compromise with a venal world, most conspicuously when he subjected them to an experiment in ascetic communal living at Fruitlands farm in 1843. However, the Alcotts’ intellectual environment was rich and stimulating: Louisa’s parents assiduously encouraged her writing, and their friends included leaders in abolition and women’s rights, including the Transcendental philosophers ...

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Aldrich, Bess Streeter (17 February 1881–03 August 1954), author, was born Bess Genevra Streeter in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the daughter of James Wareham Streeter, a farmer and miller, and Mary Wilson Anderson. Aldrich was the youngest of eight children and the only one born in Cedar Falls, where her parents had moved a few years prior to her birth. Her mother and several of her brothers and sisters wrote poetry. Aldrich began writing short stories as a child; her first writing prize came at the age of fourteen when she won a camera for a children’s story sent to the ...

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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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Allen, Henry Justin (11 September 1869–17 January 1950), politician and newspaper editor, was born in Pittsfield, Pennsylvania, the son of John Allen, a farmer, and Rebecca Goodwin. In 1870 the Allens settled on a farm in Clay County, Kansas, which they lost in 1879. The family relocated in Osage County, Kansas, where Allen graduated from Burlingame High School. Working as a barber to attend Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, he excelled at forensics, which led to his first newspaper job and forecast his later stature as one of America’s most popular public speakers. While at Baker, he met Elsie Jane Nuzman, and they were married in 1892. Only one of their four children survived to adulthood....

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Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...

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Alvarez, Walter Clement (22 July 1884–16 June 1978), physician, medical researcher, and medical columnist, was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Luis Fernandez Alvarez, a physician, and Clementina Schuetze. When Alvarez was three, his family moved to Hawaii, where his father was a government physician in two isolated Oahu villages. Alvarez was eleven when his father established a Honolulu hospital for lepers and attempted to develop a serum to combat the disease. While assisting his father, Alvarez resolved to become a physician....

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Ames, Fisher (09 April 1758–04 July 1808), Federalist party leader, member of Congress, essayist, and renowned orator, was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel Ames, Sr., a physician, tavern keeper, and almanac writer, and Deborah Fisher. Intellectually honed, Ames was admitted to Harvard at twelve. Steeped in the classics, he excelled in elocution and participated in a debating club, the Institute of 1770. Graduating in 1774, he served with the Dedham militia at the time of the battle of Bunker Hill but did not see combat. At home he pursued his scholarly interests, reading widely in classical literature and history. He also occasionally taught school. Under the tutelage of the prominent ...

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Anderson, Margaret (24 November 1886–19 October 1973), editor and author, was born Margaret Carolyn Anderson in Indianapolis, Indiana, the daughter of Arthur Aubrey Anderson and Jessie Shortridge. Anderson’s father was a railway executive who provided a comfortable middle-class existence for his wife and three daughters. Anderson, whose chief interest as a young woman was music and literature, was soon regarded as the rebel of the family. After three years at Western College for Women in Ohio, she dropped out and made her way to Chicago, hoping to find work as a writer. After various stints as a bookstore clerk, print assistant, and part-time critic, Anderson decided to start her own literary journal. With little money but a great deal of enthusiasm and support from friends, Anderson founded the avant-garde ...

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Anderson, Maxwell (15 December 1888–28 February 1959), playwright, was born James Maxwell Anderson on a farm near Atlantic, Pennsylvania, the son of William Lincoln Anderson, a lumberman and later a railroad fireman and Baptist preacher, and Charlotte Perrimela Stephenson. His restless parents moved the family to Andover, Ohio, in 1890; to Richmond Center and then Townville, Pennsylvania; and in 1895 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where Anderson first went to school. They lived in McKeesport, New Brighton, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; moved to Jefferson, Ohio, in 1901; then to Algona, Iowa; and in 1904 to New Hampton, Iowa, where Anderson first attended high school. In 1907 they moved again, to Jamestown, North Dakota. A year later Anderson graduated from high school and entered the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, graduating in 1911. That same year he married Margaret Ethel Haskett; the couple had three children....

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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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André, John (02 May 1750–02 October 1780), British officer and spy, was born in London, England, the son of Anthony André, a merchant, and Marie Louise Girardot. His early schooling was with a tutor, the Reverend Thomas Newcomb, and he may have attended St. Paul’s School. In his teens André studied mathematics and military drawing at the University of Geneva, giving vent to his romantic temperament by dreaming of a military career. He was rudely brought back to reality by his merchant father when he was called home to work in the countinghouse before he completed a degree. Despising the family business, he nevertheless labored at it manfully for a number of years. After his father died on 14 April 1769, he felt a particular obligation as the eldest son to continue the business, even though his father had left him financially independent, with a small fortune of £5,000. In the summer of 1769 he joined a Lichfield literary group presided over by Anna Seward, a poet. The group included a young lady named Honora Sneyd, for whom he developed a passion. They became engaged and courted for a year and a half before she suddenly rejected him for another man at a Christmas party in 1770. Shattered by this betrayal, André revived his earlier ambition to become a soldier and in early 1771 bought a second lieutenant’s commission in the 23d Regiment, Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Later he purchased a first lieutenancy in the same regiment....

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Angelou, Maya (4 Apr. 1928–28 May 2014), writer, performer, and activist, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, the second child of Bailey Johnson, Sr., a doorman and Navy dietitian, and Vivian Baxter, a registered nurse, cocktail hostess, and Merchant Marine. Her brother, Bailey, Jr., nicknamed her Maya, and the name stuck. After their parents’ divorce, the two young children were sent alone on a train from San Francisco to Stamps, Arkansas, to be met and raised by their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their father’s brother, Uncle Willie, who was disabled. Grandmother Henderson had managed to build and own a general store with living quarters in the back, and it was also a safe black community gathering place in the segregated town. Uncle Willie provided a steady stream of good reading and high scholastic expectations, and their grandmother, “Momma,” taught them no-nonsense life skills, took them to church, and loved them....

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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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Atherton, Gertrude Franklin (30 October 1857–14 June 1948), author, biographer, and historian, was born Gertrude Franklin Horn in San Francisco, California, the daughter of Thomas Horn, a businessman, and Gertrude Franklin. Her maternal grandfather, a grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, was a banker and editor of one of San Francisco’s first newspapers. Gertrude lived with him when her parents were divorced after three years of marriage. Although she was well read, her formal education was sporadic—while she was attending the Sayre Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, she contracted tuberculosis. After twice becoming engaged, she eventually eloped in 1876 with George H. Bowen Atherton, a former suitor of her mother’s. They had a daughter and a son who died at the age of six....