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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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Burnett, Frances Hodgson (24 November 1849–29 October 1924), author and playwright, was born Frances Eliza Hodgson at Cheetham Hill, Manchester, England, the daughter of Edwin Hodgson, a shopkeeper and silversmith, and Eliza Boond. After her father’s death in 1853, her mother attempted to maintain both his small business and the comfortable middle-class position that the family held, but she finally failed. Frances and her four siblings—she was the third child and first daughter—were soon moved, first to the home of relatives in Seedley Grove and then, in 1855, to Islington Square, a shabbily genteel address deep in industrial Manchester and surrounded on every side by the hovels of impoverished mill workers. Here, where smut rained down from mill smokestacks and pigs rooted in the garbage that lay piled in the streets outside their square, Frances’s mother lived in fear of her children’s infection not only by the physical diseases of the poor but also by their manner of speech. Some protection against the latter threat was offered by the local dame school, which provided Frances with her only formal education. Finally, however, the school neither quashed her fascination with dialects—which would emerge in her later fiction—nor satisfied her intellectual curiosity. In the slums of Manchester she became the autodidact she would remain, one with a self-sustaining imagination and a marked interest in storytelling....

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Ferber, Edna (15 August 1885–17 April 1968), novelist, playwright, and short story writer, was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the daughter of Jacob Ferber, a shopkeeper, and Julia Neumann. The Ferbers, of Jewish ancestry, suffered from the anti-Semitic atmosphere in Kalamazoo, which contributed to the family’s frequent moves throughout the Midwest. They spent time with Ferber’s maternal grandparents in Chicago. By the time the family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, Ferber’s mother assumed the obligations of shopkeeping from Jacob Ferber, now an invalid, and became the head of the family....

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Feuchtwanger, Lion (07 July 1884–21 December 1958), author, was born in Munich, Germany, the son of Sigmund Feuchtwanger, owner of a margarine factory, and Johanna Bodenheimer. After graduating from the Wilhelms-Gymnasium in Munich, supplemented by private instruction in Hebrew and Jewish religion, Feuchtwanger attended the universities of Munich and Berlin, majoring in German philology and history. He obtained his Ph.D. in Munich in 1907, writing a dissertation on Heinrich Heine’s unfinished historical novel, ...

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Gale, Zona (26 August 1874–27 December 1938), novelist and playwright, was born in Portage, Wisconsin, the daughter of Charles Franklin Gale, a railroad worker, and Eliza Beers. Gale’s father introduced her to the intellectual life through diverse writings by Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson...

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Glaspell, Susan Keating (01 July 1876–27 July 1948), writer, was born in Davenport, Iowa, the daughter of Elmer S. Glaspell, a feed dealer, and Alice Keating. She began her journalistic career upon graduating from high school in 1894, working first for the Davenport Morning Republican...

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Jeffrey Brown Martin

Hecht, Ben (28 February 1894–18 April 1964), writer, was born on New York City’s Lower East Side, the son of Joseph Hecht, a tailor and designer of women’s dresses, and Sarah Swernofsky. Hecht attended schools in New York and later in Racine, Wisconsin, where the family moved when he was six. In 1910 he moved to Chicago and began working as a picture stealer (purloining victims’ pictures from family homes for use in the newspaper) and factotum for the ...

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Isherwood, Christopher (26 August 1904–04 January 1986), writer, was born in High Lane, Cheshire, England, the son of Francis Edward Isherwood, a military officer, and Kathleen Machell-Smith. After a year (1924–1925) at Cambridge University, Isherwood went to London, where he was secretary to the violinist André Mangeot and his Music Society String Quartet, and he also worked as a private tutor. He enrolled as a medical student at Kings College, University of London, in 1928, the same year his first novel, ...

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Mann, Klaus Heinrich Thomas (18 November 1906–21 May 1949), writer, was born in Munich, Germany, the son of Thomas Mann, Nobel Prize-winning author, and Katia Pringsheim. The second child and eldest son, Mann felt oppressed by his father’s celebrity, yet he exploited Thomas Mann’s connections and finances throughout his life. His only lasting emotional bond was with his sister ...

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Mathews, Cornelius (28 October 1817?–25 March 1889), author and editor, was born in Port Chester, New York, the son of Abijah Mathews, a cabinetmaker, and Catherine Van Cott. Little is known about Mathews’s childhood. No diaries, letters, or articles exist before the mid-1830s. However, according to Trows New York Directory, his family moved from Westchester County to Manhattan, and Mathews resided for the rest of his life in various locations in lower Manhattan. He attended Columbia University from 1830 to 1832. In 1833 he transferred to the College of the City of New York, now known as New York University. The Reverend James Mathews, a relative of the family, was the chancellor of the newly established college. Cornelius Mathews received his A.B. degree in the first graduating class of 1834, and, at the commencement ceremony held at the Middle Dutch Church of New York, he gave a speech titled “Females of the American Revolution.” Mathews was admitted to the bar in 1837 and practiced law for a short time. He became the first president of the university’s alumni association in 1846. For a Eucleian Society meeting he presented his speech “Americanism—What Is It?” (1845), later published in the ...

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McCullers, Carson (19 February 1917–29 September 1967), novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, the daughter of Lamar Smith, a jewelry store owner, and Vera Marguerite Waters. Lula Carson, as she was called until age fourteen, attended public schools and graduated from Columbus High School at sixteen. An unremarkable student, she preferred the more solitary study of the piano. Encouraged by her mother, who was convinced that her daughter was destined for greatness, Carson began formal piano study at age nine but was forced to give up her dream of a career as a concert pianist after a childhood case of rheumatic fever left her without the physical stamina necessary for the rigors of practice and a concert career. While recuperating from this illness she began to read voraciously and to consider writing as a vocation. In 1934 she sailed from Savannah to New York City, supposedly to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music but actually to pursue her secret ambition. Working various jobs to support herself, she studied creative writing at Columbia University and Washington Square College of New York University. Back in Columbus in the fall of 1936 to recover from a respiratory infection, she was bedridden several months during which time she began work on her first novel, ...

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Perelman, S. J. (01 February 1904–17 October 1979), short-story writer, dramatist, and novelist, was born Sidney Joseph Perelman in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Joseph Perelman and Sophia Charren. The only child of Russian immigrant Jews, Perelman grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, who once backed an unsuccessful attempt to adapt Sir Walter Scott’s ...

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Powell, Dawn (28 November 1896–15 November 1965), writer, was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, to Roy K. Powell and Hattie Sherman Powell. (Later in life Dawn Powell insisted that the year of her birth was 1897, and this is the date that appears in most reference works, but her official biographer, Tim Page, has confirmed that 1896 is correct.) Her father, charming but feckless, held a series of jobs in area mills before settling into the life of an itinerant salesman, peddling everything from cookies to coffins, after Dawn and her two sisters were born. Following the death of their mother in 1903, the children were cared for by various relatives in villages and farms in the region. When Roy Powell eventually remarried six years later, the children joined him at his new wife's farm near Cleveland. But the life they found there was no better: the second Mrs. Powell proved to be a stereotypically mean stepmother, punishing them severely and subjecting them to endless humiliation. She was especially scornful of Dawn's attempts to write poems and short stories, burning every piece of writing that the child produced....

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Rinehart, Mary Roberts (12 August 1876–22 September 1958), novelist, playwright, and journalist, was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Thomas Beveridge Roberts, a sewing machine salesman, and Cornelia Gilleland. After high school, disappointed in her desire to study medicine, she entered the Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses. At this time, her father’s business career, already marginal, slipped further until, in 1895, he committed suicide. The next year, she married Dr. Stanley Rinehart, a surgeon, and between 1897 and 1902 gave birth to three sons....

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Edward Halsey Foster

Saroyan, William (31 August 1908–18 May 1981), writer, was born in Fresno, California, the son of Armenak Saroyan, a writer and Presbyterian minister, and Takoohi Saroyan. He was the youngest of four children born to Armenian immigrants who fled from Bitlis in eastern Turkey to avoid persecution under the Ottoman empire. Although Saroyan was born in the United States and rarely visited Armenia, he thought of himself not as an American, but as an Armenian-American, and his fiction, essays, memoirs, and plays were among the earliest expressions of a specifically ethnic voice in American literature. The Armenian identity, he believed, was a matter of personality and culture rather than geography and politics....

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Tarkington, Booth (29 July 1869–19 May 1946), novelist and playwright, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of John Stevenson Tarkington, a lawyer and judge, and Elizabeth Booth. Named for his uncle Newton Booth, the governor of California, Tarkington never used “Newton” and was always known by his middle name. He lived most of his life in Indianapolis, watching it grow from a small city into a large industrial complex. He attended high school in Indianapolis but transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire; he began college at Purdue but finished at Princeton in 1893 without taking a degree. He never wanted to be anything but a writer and for six years after college lived with his parents and collected rejection slips. His persistence paid off, however, when he sent the manuscript of ...

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Wilder, Thornton (17 April 1897–07 December 1975), novelist and playwright, was born Thornton Niven Wilder in Madison, Wisconsin, the son of Amos Parker Wilder, a diplomat and editor of the State Journal, and Isabella Thornton Niven. As a young child, Wilder lived in Madison, but in 1906 his father became consul general in Hong Kong, and the family moved overseas....

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Williams, Tennessee (26 March 1911–24 February 1983), playwright, poet, and writer of fiction, was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of Cornelius Coffin Williams and Edwina Dakin. The circumstances of Tom Williams’s birth speak volumes about his parents’ relationship. In 1909 Edwina Williams had returned to Columbus to live with her parents, an Episcopal rector and his wife, rather than live with her temperamental, hard-drinking husband. (C. C. Williams, a traveling salesman, usually stayed with them on weekends.) The model for many of her son’s characters, Edwina Williams played the role of southern belle more than was necessary, even in Ohio where she spent much of her adolescence. She also apparently had a distaste for sex, and her denial of what her husband saw as his connubial rights was one of the greatest sources of marital discord, particularly when he found sexual release elsewhere. C. C. Williams came from a good Tennessee family but hardly acted the southern aristocrat. In addition to his turbulent relationship with his wife, C. C. did not care much for his firstborn, Rose (born 1909), nor Tom, his second, whom he called “Miss Nancy.” His affection was saved for his third child, Dakin (born 1919). The happiest times of Tom’s youth were spent in his grandparents’ rectory. In many ways, the Reverend Dakin was the central father figure for the young man, taking him to New York and Europe. And his beloved maternal grandmother later paid for the completion of his degree at the University of Iowa....